Depending on which side you were on, it was either a lockout or a strike. To the 1,300 members of the National Football League Players' Association, it was a lockout. To the owners of the 26 pro teams, it was a strike. No matter the name, the players were not reporting for preseason practice last week, and the owners closed their camps to all but the few rookies on their rosters. (Rookies do not qualify for membership in the Players' Association until they have played in three league games.) Just in case the Players' Association and the NFL reached agreement, many players worked out on their own, gathering on vacant lots and high school fields from Miami to San Francisco.
Meanwhile, back in good old Philadelphia, the wrangling went on between the Players' Association and owners. Briefly put, they were arguing over a piece of change in the pension plan. This sum amounted to $4.5 million or $9.9 million, depending on whose accountant was doing the figuring. The contract between the NFL and the Players' Association expired last February, and discussions about a new contract had been going on haphazardly since then, much in the manner of another Italian cabinet crisis. Not until it was almost time for the training camps to open did the owners and players finally get down to what they call "hard bargaining." This meant they both had better get a new contract signed if they want to play any football this year.
Until late last week it looked as if the first casualty of the conflict would be the Chicago Tribune's charity game between the Kansas City Chiefs, the Super Bowl champs, and the College All-Stars on the night of July 31. For some undiscovered reason, this annual mismatch always draws a large audience and produces handsomely for the Tribune Charities, but it makes the owners and their coaches nervous. For one thing, it keeps some of their best rookies from training camp for two to three weeks of the new season; for another, expensive beefcake sometimes gets bruised beyond repair. (The Boston Patriots' No. 1 draft choice, Defensive Tackle Phil Olsen, is already on crutches and out for the year as a result of an All-Star practice session.) If there were a convenient way to drop the game, the owners would break out the champagne, but their consciences will not let them do it recklessly. The older members of the league remember only too well how much they appreciated the recognition and revenue in the days before TV made them instant millionaires.
Last Saturday, with only a week left before the All-Star kickoff, John Mackey, the Baltimore tight end who is the president of the Players' Association, gave a little ground and agreed to allow Kansas City to start practicing for the game in Chicago. The supposed reasoning was that the Chiefs, who will get regular game pay for their appearance, were being penalized more than the other players by the strike or lockout. But, in point of fact, the Chiefs themselves had already secretly voted to play the game no matter what the Association said, and the Association had previously agreed to pay them for sitting out the All-Star Game.
Mackey, a native New Yorker who measures 6'2" and 220 pounds on playing days, has been voted the best tight end in the history of football. With the ball under his arm he has carried numerous tacklers on his back for considerable distances, and this experience has been of some value to him in the current fuss. "I've got broad shoulders," he said in the midst of the negotiations, "and I can take a lot more abuse than I've already had."
The essence of the player argument is that not enough of the pie is going into their pension fund, which is now 11 years old and supported mainly by contributions from the Super Bowl and Playoff Bowl. Under the last contract the owners contributed $2.8 million a year to the fund, resulting in benefits starting at $7,800 a year for a six-year veteran aged 65, and graduating up to $12,000 a year for a 10-year man aged 65 or more. The owners have now offered to increase their ante by nearly $2 million a year over the next four years, bringing the retirement benefits to a minimum of $8,280 for the five-year veteran and a maximum of $59,940 for the 15-year man. Hardly a pittance, but the Players' Association wants more.
Another hitch is that the owners have asked some concessions in return. They want the players to make themselves available for free appearances before local civic groups. The owners also want the players to stop writing all those books of memoirs that tell who said what to whom in the locker room. The owners want to be able to calibrate the length of a player's hair and pass sartorial judgment on his apparel.
Between laughs at these demands, the players keep on returning to the pension fund. The initial player demand was for $8.5 million more in the fund—to come out of the $10 million additional money in the new television contract—but they have since scaled this down to $6.5 million. The owners, who understandably retain a deep commitment to the profit motive in a time of squeezing costs, say they will go broke. Then again the players argue that the owners' offer usurps the $550,000 the players realize from their NFL endorsement fund and other sources. The players now use this money for their Players' Association office and other expenses. In reparation, the owners say they would give them $50,000 a year to run their office.
As in all labor negotiations it was obvious that both sides were asking for the moon when all they really expected was a piece of green cheese. During the original bargaining sessions in New York, Tex Schramm of the Dallas Cowboys and Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills represented the owners, and every time they were reported to have made a concession there were howls from their fellows. Mackey, who was advised by Alan Miller, a former Oakland Raider running back who is now the lawyer for the Players' Association, finally concluded that there was no way they were going to reach a settlement and asked the Federal Mediation and Consultation Service in Washington to enter the case.
Even that was a problem. The owners seemed to think they were being lured into a trap in Washington. They claimed that the players had too many political friends there, whatever that meant. Somebody suggested Baltimore as a suitable meeting place with the federal mediators, but the owners thought that city was too close to Washington. The whole affair began to sound like the hassle over the shape of the Vietnam bargaining table in Paris. Finally, toward the end of last week, both sides agreed they would be reasonably safe in Philadelphia, where the feds occupy a suite of offices with rooms especially designed for wrangling disputants. Schramm and Wilson brought along Theodore Kheel, a New York lawyer with a long record of settling labor disputes, like subway and garbage strikes. Mackey was backed up by Ken Bowman, a rugged Green Bay center who looked as if he would prefer to settle the thing with a block, and Ernie Wright, a tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals whose look was as set as any owner's.