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The labor conflict between professional football players and management, which is destined to become a continuing affair despite periodic settlement, reminds me of the year Frank Buncom and I walked out of training camp because of a contractual dispute with the San Diego Chargers. The year was 1965 and Frank and I had a good plan.
Simple. Ingenious. For a week prior to the inception of the plan, Frank had wanted to walk out of training camp because he had reached an impasse during his contract negotiations with Coach Sid Gillman. An impasse is when Coach Gillman informs you that he has made his final offer and if you don't like it you can play out your option or seek another form of employment. Hardly an attractive list of alternatives. When Coach Gillman and I reached a similar impasse, Frank and I began to see more of each other, and soon the plan was formed. It was designed to conclude negotiations, hopefully by arm's-length discussion. If that didn't work, Frank and I were prepared to use the drama of walking out of camp, but we wished to do so without incurring a fine upon our return.
We had ourselves covered beautifully. It went like this: we would approach Coach Gillman together, informing him that although we had not banded together to negotiate a joint contract we had reached similar conclusions about our careers as professional football players, said conclusion being that we had not attained the contract level we had hoped for at this particular time in our careers, and, if it became apparent that our progress would be hampered, we would have to retire to try another field. Retire. Now, this was the key word. A player can be fined for walking out of camp, but how can a player be fined for retiring? He can't. Thus, if necessary, we could pull off our power play with impunity. However, we would assure Coach Gillman that we did not wish to retire, that we really wished to sign our contracts, and, to show our good faith, we had individually reappraised our positions and would each sign for an amount less than that we had previously sought. Gentlemen. Class. We had it. Well, almost. Frank is one of the kindest, most personable men of my acquaintance, a man with whom I would truly choose to walk through life, but he simply was not cut out for all that plotting.
You see, Frank is committed to a set of principles, and he doesn't adjust them to conform to a trying situation. He has emulated the great Cyrano de Bergerac, his favorite literary character, to such an extent that he enjoys the lightness of interjecting him in everyday conversation. For instance, if one asked Frank what he had for dinner he was likely to say, "a grape...a glass of water and half a macaroon." And please don't ask him why he doesn't yield in his contract demands lest you find yourself on the receiving end of Cyrano's famous "No thank you" speech.
More and more, Frank did not like the part where we walk out, though he had originally suggested it. He had not entirely made up his mind that he would be resolute in his retirement threat if our terms were not met, so our plan had a touch of dishonesty which he did not like. And, that existing, he did not think he could be very convincing. I assured him that our line of argument was so reasonable that Sid would reach an agreement with us and we would never come to the part where we walk out.
"Okay, then, you do the talking," Frank said.
So, we went into Sid's office. It turned out to be a debacle. Later, we had a good time trying to figure out where we went wrong. Frank decided that I had botched things up by being too nervous. He said that I was sidling so close to him that he had to step away for fear that I would slip my hand into his. Anyway, it did not go well.
"Coach," I said, "we...."
"We, what do you mean we? I don't deal with 'we's.' Nobody is going to gang up on this club; you either negotiate individually or not at all."
"No, coach," I said, "we aren't negotiating together—we simply have come to some common conclusions and...." But Sid would not be headed, and red-faced, pointing his pipe, he continued: "This organization deals fairly with each player, and we won't tolerate any of these holdup tactics. We don't throw any curves in this organization and we don't expect to have any thrown at us. I negotiate with individuals, not groups."