SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
October 12, 1987
Neither side in the NFL strike found much to lift its spirits in the advent of scab ball
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October 12, 1987

Left With An Empty Feeling

Neither side in the NFL strike found much to lift its spirits in the advent of scab ball

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NFL football was a studio sport on Sunday, pseudo-professionals playing in near-empty stadiums. Scab ball was a sad show, "an ugly, ugly thing," said L.A. Raider tight end Todd Christensen. But it was also something else. It was shock therapy, a chilling message from the owners to the striking players: We will give you something so utterly distasteful—games played without you—that your strike will crumble. Go ahead and laugh, but this will bring you back to work.

The message didn't sink in right away. On Sunday afternoon there was a festive air outside some stadiums. At Giants Stadium, for instance, 50 or so Giants and Jets picketed the Jets- Dallas game, tailgated and swapped one-liners with the fans and sympathy strikers from other unions. "Hey Kurt," a fan said to the Jets' player rep, Kurt Sohn, "did you hear that the Patriots' Tony Collins fumbled two times in his first three carries?"

"I guess being a scab doesn't agree with him," said Sohn of Collins, one of the six New England regulars to cross the picket line and play Sunday.

Then the striking players went home and thought things over. They're playing, we're not. They're getting paid, we're not. If the striking New York players got back to their houses before the Cowboys-Jets game was over and if they tuned in to it on TV, they saw Brent Musburger give the up-to-the-minute scores, same as usual, and John Madden do his chalkboard diagrams and tell everyone, "Hey, there's some real stuff going on out there." Where was the heehaw, the palm of the hand to the forehead? Where was someone saying, "This isn't real football, fans"?

And the little voice got louder. Do we really want free agency? Is it that big a deal? There was no free-agency fever at the Players Association convention in March. Free agency was just one of eight key issues. What if we took it off the table? The pension's important too, isn't it? And what about better severance and improved working conditions?

By Sunday night all the players had heard the rumors: Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the Players Association, will back off of free agency, and we'll return to work and negotiate the other issues. One of them will be having the owners not count the scab games. Management will come off its no-no-no stance and do some real bargaining. Jesse Jackson will mediate those talks, and he'll make sure everything will be kosher. What's so bad about that? Best of all, we'll be back to work—probably even by next week.

In fact, the Raiders were minutes away from going back in as a team last week, after defensive end Howie Long and noseguard Bill Pickel broke ranks and showed up for practice on Friday, only to change their minds and rejoin their striking teammates later in the day. Long and Pickel reported a few minutes before noon, California time, which was the deadline for striking players who wanted to be eligible for Sunday's game. The rest of the squad was ready to follow, but there wasn't enough time to get everyone together before the deadline, and the movement fizzled. Privately, however, Raider players let it be known that if free agency wasn't removed as a demand, they would return to work this week en masse.

As Upshaw, the executive committee and the 28 player reps gathered in Chicago for a Monday night meeting, there was speculation that the players would go back on the job without a contract and try to win free agency through the courts. "That simply won't happen," said Doug Allen, the Players Association's assistant executive director. "You hear a lot of rumors, and most of them have been planted by management. One after another they've been proved false. The meeting Monday night is to bring the player reps up to date on what's happened and to determine where we go from here." Where that might be—back to work or still on strike—was unknown early Tuesday morning when SI went to press, with the players in their fifth hour behind closed doors in Chicago.

Before the meeting Allen had sought to put the best face on how the scab games affected the union's position. ' "I know that what happened in the games directly refutes what [Cowboys president] Tex Schramm said, that the fans will be intrigued by this brand of football and will support it," Allen said. "What did those games draw—an average of 10,000?" In fact, the average attendance for Sunday's 13 games was 16,987, with a high of 38,494 in Denver and a low of 4,074 in Philadelphia.

Well, what was scab ball like? There were some moments of high hilarity. After the first play of the second half of the Detroit-Tampa Bay game in the Silver-dome, the following announcement was made in the press box: "An incomplete pass for No. 89, Eric Streater.... Please add No. 89, Eric Streater, to your roster." Streater later caught a TD pass for the Bucs in their 31-27 victory.

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