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.
The kickoff will be at midnight on April 30 when about 50 players—including Quarterback Bill Kilmer, Running Backs MacArthur Lane and Donny Anderson and Wide Receiver Marlin Briscoe—will become free agents and thus officially available on the open market. This will be confusing to some, for it is generally assumed that the NFL survives only because an open market on players does not exist, an assumption that has been sanctified by act of Congress. It should prove alarming to others because, while this is an annual phenomenon, the usual number of players available is eight or 10. The reasons why there are more this year are 1) the Nixon wage freeze and 2) growing owner resistance to increased player demands, matched by growing player dissatisfaction, not just with the money they are not getting but with working conditions.
Then, early in May the NFL Players Association plans to file suit in federal district court against NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the 26 NFL clubs. The suit will charge that the freedom given annually to free agents is an illusion and that even in a partially exempt industry this constitutes an illegal restraint of trade and a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
"There is a great deal of misunderstanding among the general public about the option clause," says Ed Garvey, the NFLPA's executive director. "What most people don't know when they read about someone playing out his option is that it is not his option he is playing out at all, it is the owner's option."
The Option Clause, as written into the Standard Player Contract, works like this: prior to May of the year in which his current contract expires, each player receives from his front office a letter stating that the club intends, as described in the contract, to exercise its option to an additional year of the player's services, without a contract and at no less than 90% of his current salary. In the vast majority of cases, the letter is mailed for routine protection, the owner hoping to get the player's signature on a new contract.
If the player refuses to sign, he becomes a free agent the following May. But any club that signs this free agent must provide satisfactory compensation to the previous owner or come under the jurisdiction of what the players call the Rozelle Rule, what the owners call the Compensation Rule and what the NFLPA suit will be all about. Article 12.1 (H) of the Constitution and By-Laws for The NFL states that in such a situation "...the Commissioner may name and then award to the former club one or more players...of the acquiring club as the Commissioner in his sole discretion deems fair and equitable; any such decision by the Commissioner shall be final and conclusive."
Players and owners agree that the combination of the Option Clause and the Compensation Rule forms a powerful restraint on freedom of movement. From 1966 through 1970, 42 players became free agents, but Rozelle had to act in but two cases, so dire were the consequences of his second ruling: in 1968 the Saints were outraged at having to give up their No. 1 draft choices for that year (Defensive Tackle Kevin Hardy) and for 1969 (who turned out to be Tight End Ted Kwalick) to sign ex-49er Tight End Dave Parks. Of the remaining 40 free agents, only 11 were able to sign on with another club, 24 re-signed with their old clubs, four did not sign and one went to Canada. The bone of contention between management and labor is whether or not this restraint on freedom of movement is essential and legal, essential and therefore legal—or even fair.
The first move in the game of Option Clause is to attempt to establish if the clause is needed to maintain the competitive balance on which the financial health of the NFL depends, if, in fact, the league needs to enjoy a monopoly of the labor market as well as of the product market. Says Edward Bennett Williams, president of the Washington Redskins, "If you didn't have the option clause you wouldn't have a league. The Lamar Hunts, Clint Murchisons and Bill Fords could hire away all the competition with their huge bankrolls."
This oft-repeated argument exasperates Garvey. "It presumes irrational behavior on the part of the owners," he says. "They are profit maximizers, after all. They are not going to risk making a profit in order to corner the superteam that has no one to play. That argument assumes everyone is a sportsman owner except a few greedy guys."
The Crushing Dynasty Theory is also refuted by a Williams hireling, George Burman, a Redskin center who is working for his Ph.D. in Labor Economics. "An important limitation is that no one would be willing to build a dynasty, and keep it, in a dying industry," he says. "An NFL franchise now goes for $20 million. What owner would want to see the value of his franchise drop to $3 million or to zero?"