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The sticking point is the so-called Rozelle Rule, which is complicated by the restrictive covenants in the players' contract as explicitly outlined in a lawsuit filed in 1972 on behalf of John Mackey, who was then the Players Association president. Stripped of rhetoric, politics and hyperbole, the NFL strike comes down to this knotty issue.
The Rozelle Rule holds that if a pro plays out his option and joins another NFL club, his former team must be compensated for his defection. If the two teams are unable to agree on the compensation, the commissioner—Pete Rozelle—may unilaterally decide what players or draft choices will go in payment to the disaffected team.
"The basic issue," says Curry, "is the right of a player to move freely from one team to another when his contract has expired. We think he should have that right, just as everyone else has." The players contend that they have been restricted in their mobility ever since 1968, when Rozelle decreed that the New Orleans Saints had to give up their No. 1 draft choice for two consecutive years as compensation for signing Dave Parks, an end who had departed the San Francisco 49ers for the Saints. "It cost New Orleans so dearly," says one player representative, "that thereafter no club dared sign a player who had played out his option. We were locked in." Actually, since then 20 players have played out their options and gone to other teams, and only twice has Rozelle had to intervene.
Rozelle's stock reply is, "If NFL players are given total freedom to negotiate their services, the league would be dominated by a few rich teams and would eventually lose both fan interest and revenue." Though Curry argues that the restraints of the marketplace would work for football as they do for other businesses, other NFL union supporters admit that if the players are given the total freedom they request, some teams might fold because they couldn't compete financially. "Let those teams go out of business if they can't run a profitable enterprise," says Garvey, ever the hardliner. "That's what happens in American industry."
With the emergence of the acquisitive World Football League as a new and lucrative market, the players' argument about restricted mobility is considerably defused. But for the moment they have a greater problem to cope with. In filing their charges of unfair labor practices, the Management Council maintained that the players cannot bargain faithfully over the Rozelle Rule because of the John Mackey case.
Mackey sued to abolish the Rozelle Rule and other alleged inequities, and since the resolution of that suit is still pending, the owners contend that the players must opt for all or nothing on the Rozelle Rule issue—which conflicts with all the tenets of collective bargaining. If not, if the players agree to compromises, they weaken their position in the lawsuit because the owners can use this against them.
Providing the owners' position here is sound, the players simply cannot budge (short of giving up the Mackey suit) on this critical issue, and there is, therefore, little hope for an immediate end to the current stalemate.
Within this same general area of "freedom" issues is another head-on dispute which the owners refer to as "double jeopardy." It involves the fact that in the past the Players Association has negotiated only the minimums for salaries, but now is seeking the same authority for everything from per diem to travel allowances to Super Bowl money. So, in effect, the union is asking for two shots at the owners—first, the owners would have to concede moneys in the collective bargaining process, then they would have to start again and negotiate each of these items with each individual player.
Regrettably, the focus of the negotiations has too often strayed from the issues to become a contest of personalities, most notably Ed Garvey's. Management Council Executive Director John Thompson says that Garvey's overbearing ways have served to solidify the traditionally divided owners. "They've never been more unified," says Thompson. "That's one thing Garvey has accomplished." Garvey's manner has also alienated some of his own troops. Mike Curtis, the Baltimore" Colt linebacker who is the most outspoken pro-management NFL regular, says, " Ed Garvey is a left-wing opportunist who is trying to make a name for himself at the players' expense. They're talking about freedom issues because it's a catchy phrase. You can't be any freer than we are."
The oldtime players have also taken after the players. At Canton, former Detroit Lion star Leon Hart, who is the president of the NFL Alumni Association, and a group of his alums picketed the NFLPA pickets. "We feel the players are being led astray," says Hart, "misguided into an indefensible position from which there eventually can be no return. In my opinion Ed Garvey is a weasel."