Garvey suffers his critics wearily. The contempt of the owners, he says, is just part of their "suffocating paternalism. They can't come to grips with the idea that the players are the ones who are challenging them, and I'm just a conduit. They have to believe that I'm responsible. It's another example of how insensitive they are to what the players are thinking."
The players are all too painfully aware of what the fans are thinking. Surveys taken around the country show overwhelming public support—80% and more in some cities—for the owners. Just as in the 1970 strike, the owners' PR has been far superior to the players'. The owners' most winning move was to offer refunds for preseason games featuring the rookie legions.
In blue-collar Baltimore, the placards held by a group of 30 irate fans who were picketing the players reflected the prevailing sentiment, NO MORE FREEDOM FOR LITTLE PRIMA DONNA ATHLETES/AT 30 G'S OR MORE MAKE ME A SLAVE, TOO/YOUR FREEDOM WILL RIP OFF THE FAN. Says Doug Strouse, president of the newly formed United Sports Fans, "People are totally fed up with the whole situation. We fans should be the ones negotiating with the owners. We pay the freight. It's our pockets that are picked when the players get a raise because ticket prices go up then." Strouse says he formed his club because "management has their representation, the players have theirs and we the fans, the guys who pay the bills, don't have anything to say about anything. Well, we're going to change that now."
Despite the ill feeling toward the players there is some question that the fans will continue to support the owners to the hilt. The number of ticket returns and this weekend's attendance figures should provide an indication. This is the real beginning of the exhibition season. It is, however, still too early for the TV prophets to predict what immediate impact the strike will have on the ratings. The NFL, which received a munificent $44.3 million from the three networks last year, is obviously scanning its Nielsens closely. If the strike were to cut appreciably into the ratings, the networks would grant rebates to the sponsors, and the league would lower its fees.
Meanwhile, out there in affiliate land, most if not all TV stations are sticking with the telecasts of the rookie exhibition games. Tom Kenney of KFMB-TV in San Diego echoes the sentiments of most program directors: "If I don't carry the games Sundays, I end up with old movies. Besides, who knows? The rookies might be exciting."
If all was temporarily secure with the tube, there were still periodic rumblings out on the picket lines. Though a renegade team like the Cincinnati Bengals had more than 20 strikebreaking veterans in training camp last week, most of the players were respecting the pickets. At last count, only about 200 of the 1,200 players who belong to the association had crossed the lines.
Aside from the smattering who did not support the strike in principle, most of the defectors were marginal players who needed every lick of training to keep their jobs. A few teams—notably Denver—have also seemed to circumvent the spirit of the strike by holding full-scale practice sessions away from camp.
The picket lines, which started out with an air of frivolity, have grown more somber as the dog days of July have shimmered by. Distressingly, players even report that on many teams devotion to the strike cause is divided racially, with a disproportionate number of blacks trooping the picket lines while the whites have tended to be the strikebreakers. Except for one rumored flash incident, the racial antagonism has so far been confined to muttering, but it is natural to speculate on how this most sensitive rift may widen on many teams if the season is played.
One owners' spokesman accuses Garvey of inspiring the racial difficulties, saying that the attorney makes his "emotional appeal to the militant blacks." The very use of the "freedom" clarion call (and Mackey bandied about cries of "slavery" when he was the association president) obviously appeals to the young blacks who form the heart of Garvey's most loyal constituency.
More trouble the strikers do not need. As the owners well know, the closer the opening of the season gets the stronger will be the pressure on the players. For the moment, the players are losing little but the drudgery of training camp. In effect they are striking with impunity, which may be one reason why public opinion is so solidly against them.