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Because of a clause, a cause
Gwilym S. Brown
May 01, 1972
The National Football League season will get underway four months early this year. Only the game they will be playing, which pits those high-flying owners against the rough, tough players, is called Option Clause.
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May 01, 1972

Because Of A Clause, A Cause

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The second most popular reason for believing that freedom to roam would create competitive imbalance (and financial disaster) is offered by Tex Schramm, president-general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. "Certain cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, in that order, would always be favored because they can offer tremendous fringe benefits to a player," he says. "Weather and glamour would be important factors in attracting top players to Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco."

A final point is introduced by a lawyer who wishes to remain unidentified. He states that TV revenues would plunge from their current heady total of $45 million a year if freedom of movement became a reality. "The selling of TV rights is very closely connected to maintaining balance," he says. "The networks do not know what games they are buying when they purchase packages from the NFL, but they buy them just the same. It's because of the old clich´┐Ż that any team can win on any given day. If you are going to have a viable league you must have a way to keep players on a team. If you gave players freedom to roam you would begin to nick off teams one at a time. In 10 years you'd have only eight teams left. We'd go back to barnstorming. Popular interest would go downhill. On TV we'd be stuck with a game of the week like college football because there would not be enough good competition around to merit any more than that."

Despite these arguments many players desire some kind of change in the option clause. In a recent poll of its 1,200 members the NFLPA found that 31% of the 840 responding wanted total elimination of the option clause, 62% wanted it modified and 7% wanted no change at all. The players say that there would not be as much shifting of personnel as the owners predict and that what there was would increase competition.

"The biggest movement you'd see would be by players who are now sitting on the bench," says John Mackey, Baltimore tight end and NFLPA president. "A lot of them haven't been treated too well by management. A conservative guess is that there are 25 or 30 backup guys who could be starters on other clubs."

A free labor market is probably the best way for a weak club to become competitive, claims George Burman. "In the long run, straight trading is not going to equalize competition, and as an equalizer the reverse order college draft is pretty much of a hoax," he says. "The worst team really only gets an advantage of one first-round pick over the best team. After that it is actually drafting behind the best. Dallas picks 26th, Buffalo 27th, Dallas picks 52nd, Buffalo 53rd, and so on."

Burman cites several other reasons why a free labor market in the NFL would not generate a wild, destructive bidding war. Pro athletes are pretty much like ordinary people in that they do not want to continually shift their homes and families from city to city. Humane treatment by coaches and management is also an important factor in determining where someone wants to play. "Right now coaches like George Allen, Don Shula, Tommy Prothro, Dick Nolan, a few others, would have a tremendous advantage in a competitive market," says Burman. "They treat their players like grown men."

What about salaries? The consensus of owners and players is that salaries would rise 15 or 20% and that most of that increase would go to superstars and players in key positions.

The legal ramifications of the option clause are due for an airing in court. The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision on Curt Flood's suit against baseball's reserve clause before the current term ends in June. Meanwhile, Joe Kapp has filed an antitrust suit against the NFL; and the NFLPA suit will ask for permanent suspension of the Rozelle-Compensation Rule. The owners are comforted, however, by a report that appeared in The Yale Law Journal of November 1971, stating that once professional athletes have formed a collective bargaining unit recognized by the NLRB, which has happened in baseball, basketball, hockey and football, arguments over reserve and option clauses must be settled at the negotiating table, not in the courts. The article predicts that the Supreme Court will therefore throw out Flood's suit.

"We just don't happen to think that the argument is valid," says Garvey. "Just because something is a condition of employment doesn't mean it can violate the established laws of this country. If it was a condition of employment that any rookie who dropped a punt would be shot, would that mean that the team that shot him couldn't be prosecuted under the criminal laws? We hope the courts agree with us."

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: whether or not the players are getting a fair share of the revenue they generate. "It's always the players who have to defend their greed," complains Burman, "not the owners, who won't even open their books."

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