Traditionally, the annual Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio is the big splashy official sendoff for the National Football League's exhibition season, a day when retired tackles and glad-handing oldtimers get together to celebrate the sport's storied past and marvel at its wondrous future. But last week tradition was thrown for a loss in Canton. The present—taut, volatile and decidedly unconducive to swapping old locker-room tales—intruded harshly.
Although the schedule called for a game between the Buffalo Bills and the St. Louis Cardinals, the real main event was the confrontation between the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association. On strike for the past month in a bitter contract dispute, more than 40 members of the Players Association went to Canton to set up picket lines and prevent the two teams—comprised mainly of rookies, free agents and whoever else had been rounded up off the streets—from competing.
Perhaps panicked by the fact that the picketing players were joined by more than 100 of their brethren from the United Auto Workers, management devised one of the most elaborate logistical plans since the evacuation of Dunkirk. To confuse the enemy, the owners' generals spread false rumors about the teams' travel plans and where they would be billeted. No contingency was overlooked. The Cardinals, fearing their uniforms might be stolen in an attempt to sabotage the game, sent an empty equipment truck to the airport to see if anyone would try to hijack it. No one did.
As a safeguard against an entire team being kidnapped, two buses were dispatched to the Cleveland Browns' training camp, and the players there were alerted to be ready to fill in as a whole spare team. Then, just three hours before game time, by secret prearrangement. the Bills and the Cardinals arrived simultaneously at the Akron-Canton Airport, just after Vice-President Gerald Ford and his Secret Service force landed in Air Force Two. Under heavy security—a helicopter flew overhead to spot possible roadblocks—the two clubs were whisked into the stadium through a back exit, guarded by mounted policemen.
In the surprisingly spirited game that followed, the St. Louis Nobodies defeated the Buffalo Unknowns 21-13—but the biggest winner of the afternoon was the crafty old Management Council. More than paranoia, the owners' fail-safe system for beating the picket line was indicative of the intensity of their desire to show the striking players that they can put on games that people will pay to see; attendance at the Hall of Fame game was 17,286, only about 2,400 fewer than the previous year.
For their part, the striking players remain confident that despite the relative success of the Hall of Fame no-name game, they will win out in the long run. While organizing the pickets. Players Association President Bill Curry observed, "Most of those guys playing out there today know they are never going to play in the NFL. If they can get a picture of themselves in an NFL uniform to hang over their bar, well, that's enough."
Many disenchanted fans have already had too much, and for a growing number, the showdown in Canton is only the latest in a series of unseemly hassles in which the result if not the issues seemed clear: everybody loses. Negotiators in both camps, citing their unstinting devotion to The Integrity of The Game, have long and loudly been pledging to work for a quick and just settlement to the dispute. But as of last week, with a full schedule of exhibition games beginning and the regular season just a few kick-offs away, the gap between the players' demands and the owners' concessions was still at the magnitude of Evel Knievel's Snake River Canyon. And after four months of bargaining, the negotiators have not only filed charges of unfair labor practices against one another but seem as recalcitrant as ever.
After the latest impasse, Ed Garvey, the cocky young director of the players' union, accused Theodore Kheel, an owners' counsel, of undermining the negotiations. "We were making some progress over the weekend," Garvey said. "We backed off on some of our demands, and they were coming up on some of theirs. But the more progress we made the more uptight Kheel got, so he called off the negotiations. He is more a part of the problem than the solution."
Answered Kheel, "To say that the Players Association backed off on some of their demands, and that as a result we are making progress, is like saying a $10 cut in the price of a Cadillac is some progress toward curbing inflation."
The sniping, the rhetoric and the posturing are aimed more at gaining public support than at clarifying the issues. The verbiage expended so far has been enough to blur all 63 of the players' demands, including the so-called freedom issues, which among other things call for the elimination of the reserve list, the option clause and the waiver system and the easing of curfews and other disciplinary rules. Yet for all the overblown cries of "anarchy" from the owners and "slavery" from the players, the essence of the dispute is a single unnegotiable issue.