SI Vault
So Little Gain For the Pain
Ron Mix
October 19, 1987
Striking NFL players deserve much, much more, says the author (left), a former tackle and Hall of Famer
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October 19, 1987

So Little Gain For The Pain

Striking NFL players deserve much, much more, says the author (left), a former tackle and Hall of Famer

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If there were truly some pockets of concern among owners for something other than the bottom line, artificial turf would not continue to displace natural grass. Two things are well known: 1) artificial turf saves money, and 2) serious injuries are increased significantly in games played on the cement rug. But it saves money! That is why the owners will not yield to the players' request to go back to natural grass. From the owners' point of view, there is no real need. It is not difficult to replace injured players—colleges grow a whole new crop each year at no cost to the NFL.

It is not just profits, though, that contaminate the finest of managements, fog their judgment, make them believe what they want and ignore the truth—it's also the quest for victories. The Chargers introduced steroids to professional football in 1963. The club hired a Baton Rouge gym owner, Alvin Roy, to be the first strength coach in pro football. Alvin had been an assistant coach of one of our Olympic weightlifting teams and had learned a secret from "them Rooskies," he informed us while explaining the virtues of Dianabol.

He did not say the pills were steroids, only that taking them would help us assimilate protein, "the building blocks of muscle." We had taken the pills three times a day for five weeks when someone's family doctor advised him he shouldn't take it for extended periods of time. (The drug can cause permanent bone damage, liver damage, sterility and so on.) When the rest of us heard that, most stopped. But for many, the prospect of being stronger was too intoxicating, the hope for an advantage too enticing, the fear of failure too great—and they continued. The club continued to offer Dianabol to the team as long as I was in San Diego. Civilian casualties were acceptable.

What a laugh I get when I hear some of the senior owners lament the passage of the good old days when players played for the love of the game. Translation: They took what we gave them. The owners tried to preserve those good old days as long as possible. Oh, how they tried to delay the start of the union!

In the early '60s, Tom Addison of the Patriots, Kemp of the Bills and I were some of the founders of the American Football League Players Association. Simply convincing the players of the need for a union was difficult. Dues were only $25, yet the Chargers, with just 17 members, had the highest participation in the league the first year. Our union had so little money that team reps were required to be All-Stars because the only way we could afford to get together was at the All-Star Game.

When management finally agreed to meet with us, we were told we had 20 minutes to read our requests. Only Tommy, Jack and I were invited into the meeting. The owners sat around a table while the three of us stood. As Tommy read, the majority of the owners continued to jabber among themselves. When Tommy finished, he was thanked, and we were told our requests would be considered. Nothing was ever considered.

We were askers in those days, and it got us absolutely nowhere, even though we were asking for very little. Some teams, for instance, were flying their squads to night games on the same day. The early Denver team would travel to Oakland on Friday morning for a Friday night game and stay at the Hilton Hotel until game time; the players were told by team officials not to turn back the bedcovers or they would be personally charged $10. We wanted that corrected. The 1960 Oakland Raiders practiced twice a day during the eight-week preseason, and the typical lunch for players was two glasses of iced tea and a bologna and cheese sandwich. All clubs kept taxi squads and paid them whatever they felt like. One player on the Chargers was being paid $100 per week...he thought. One week when the teams were idle he was not paid, and it was explained to him that he was mistaken: It was $100 a game, not a week.

The players have come a long way since then; they are big boys now. They no longer believe that coaches and management are father figures. They are perfectly willing to watch out for themselves. But to do it, they must have free agency, just like every other American.

Keep in mind that the current restrictions on player movement were found to be illegal by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1976. Doesn't that tell you something about who holds the high ground on this issue? That the players union negotiated away its court victory more than a decade ago is too sad to comment upon. But it doesn't mean that they are now precluded from saying, "Stop hammering me on the head."

There is no issue of greater importance than free agency, or some variation of it that permits a player's value to be established in the marketplace. Without the ability to seek employment elsewhere once they have fulfilled their contractual commitments, the players will see their salaries stagnate. The owners are fond of reciting that the average player salary has increased from $90,000 to $230,000 since the last collective bargaining agreement, in 1982. There's the proof, they say, that free agency is not needed. But take away the market created by the late USFL, and the average salary would still be close to $90,000.

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