When the National Football League and the young American Football League reached a peace settlement last year, it seemed to the owners that most of their troubles were over. The delightful bargaining position enjoyed by the players for six years had come to an end. No longer, the clubs reasoned, would an old hand like Jimmy Taylor play out his option, with the threat of going to an American Football League team for a million-dollar contract. Obviously, no million-dollar contracts would exist. No longer, either, could a Donny Anderson or a Joe Namath demand—and get—a king's ransom for services unproved and untested. The era of big bonuses was at an end, the era of big profits at hand. The clubs would sit back, wax fat on television contracts and gradually apply a squeeze to salaries and bonuses.
It hasn't turned out quite that way. Fully aware of what the AFL-NFL peace could do to their earnings, more players have elected to play out options this season than in years past. John Unitas, no great bargainer during the years of his ascendance, has been reluctant to reach an agreement with the Baltimore Colts. Five players, represented by an attorney, tried to bargain as a group with Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, and were given vocal support by Jim Brown, the movie actor who once played fullback for Modell. Alex Karras, 32 years old, got an amazing seven-year contract with the Detroit Lions as a defensive tackle, and Taylor, having spent a year running out the option clause on his contract at Green Bay, went to the New Orleans Saints on a contract reminiscent of Namath's. All over the league the players were growing more restless, and the owners, rather than enjoying carefree days, found problems proliferating.
Modell broke the solid front of the five players who confronted him in Cleveland by trading away two of them and negotiating with the other three singly, but Leroy Kelly, the second best running back in the league in 1966, is playing out his option. That means he must take a 10% cut on his 1966 salary and hope to make the loss back, with interest, by negotiating a deal with another team after May 1, 1968, when he becomes a free agent. But whatever team signs him must compensate Cleveland for his loss, either with players, cash or draft choices. Even Kelly may find himself priced out of the market.
Tex Schramm, the Dallas general manager and a veteran of the old pro football war between the All-America Conference and the National Football League, has accepted the new challenge with his accustomed cool. Many of the players who held out for more money this year reported to camp without new contracts, thus avoiding the $100-a-day fine levied on any team member reporting late for training and placing themselves in an available spot for bargaining. One holdout, after a long, silent battle of nerves with Schramm, approached him after practice.
"I think it's about time we had a talk," he said.
"About what?" the general manager asked blandly.
The Teamsters' Union, concentrating on Negroes, is making a strong effort to organize the players, possibly on the theory that most of them are as big as trucks anyway. The Teamsters have made small progress, although Brown has been offered a job as their agent. If he can organize all the Negroes—who represent about 25% of the players in both leagues—then the Teamsters need only get another 8�% to force a vote. So far, however, the majority of players have evinced little interest in a union.
"You can't arrive at a wage scale," one veteran said the other day. "A Jimmy Brown gets, say, $60,000 a year, and he's worth it. With a union, I think it would tend to level out salaries. We average maybe $15,000 over the league now. Is the union going to get all of us that much more? I don't think so. And it would probably cut out the shot at the big money."
Union or no union, the players' bargaining position is still strong, despite the elimination by the merger of competitive bidding. There are now 25 major league professional football teams; as recently as 1959 there were only 12. The talent, obviously, has been spread thin, and the really first-rate professional football player is commensurately more valuable. The surprising exhibition-game success of the New Orleans Saints, the newest addition to the NFL, is evidence of this. When the Dallas Cowboys were admitted to the league in 1960, they had to make do with culls and misfits and fielded a truly horrendous team. It was bad primarily because of the sharp contrast with other NFL teams, most of them careful blends of experienced specialists.
The Saints, on the other hand, are not that much worse off than the teams they will be meeting this year. They are probably a better club than was Dallas in 1960 but, more important, they are playing at a time when the best players have been parceled out among 25 teams, not 13. The Saints won five of their exhibition games, two more than the American Football League could win against the NFL in 16 games.