Apart from those heady moments spent preparing for and playing in the Super Bowl, there was a time when nothing was of more importance to a pro football franchise than that two-day ordeal known as the collegiate player draft. Perhaps more than the won-lost record or the bottom line, it revealed a club's acumen. But even before last week's draft, there were indications that the race henceforth may be not so much to the wise as to the wealthy.
In evidence thereof, consider the signings that took place in the six days preceding the draft and stole the thunder from the selection rites, despite the drafting of the twin Buckey brothers, the non-twin Selmon brothers, Archie (Twin Heisman) Griffin, Joe Namath's heir apparent, and the participation of Tampa Bay and Seattle, the expansion teams that begin play this season.
The most newsworthy event took place the day before the club representatives sat down in New York's Roosevelt Hotel ballroom for a seven-round, 212-player, 14-hour opening-day session. That's when Larry Csonka, the 29-year-old fullback out of Syracuse, Miami, Memphis and three Super Bowls, signed a contract making him the highest-salaried Giant in the team's history.
While terms of the multiyear pact were not revealed by the Giants, they ostensibly had been made public a day earlier by Joe Robbie, the Dolphins' owner. Robbie, claiming his former hireling was making exorbitant demands, said that Csonka had asked for a four-year, million-dollar contract that also called for a $50,000 cash bonus for signing, an annual bonus of $15,000, a 20-year loan of $125,000, and a P.R. job with the club, with expense account, plane tickets, game tickets, a new car and a town-house apartment. (To protect their investment, the Giants subsequently signed eight of Csonka's former WFL teammates, five of them offensive linemen.)
"I don't deny those figures are astronomical," Csonka told The Miami Herald, "but you have to start somewhere." Then, in a press conference held on the first day of the draft, Csonka barely veiled his anger when he said, " Robbie made our proposal a public ax-grinding and thereby shut the door on any further negotiations I might have had with the Dolphins."
Another coup for the NFC East, in keeping with the excitement the division gave its fans last season, came four days earlier when Calvin Hill, like Csonka a 29-year-old running back, returned from the World Football League and signed with the Washington Redskins. Terms of Hill's contract were neither announced nor ratted to the press, but it is reasonable to assume that the ex-Cowboy will be similarly well-heeled. In one sense, Hill's signing was even more significant than Csonka's because in its aftermath Commissioner Pete Rozelle revealed that at least for the time being the Rozelle Rule will not be enforced—that is, a team signing a free agent does not have to compensate his former club.
The day before Csonka made his Giant fortune, Paul Warfield, his teammate at both Miami and Memphis, signed a three-year contract with the Cleveland Browns—the club on which he started his pro career back in 1964. Warfield is the fleet wide receiver whom the Browns traded to Miami in 1970 to obtain draft rights to Purdue Quarterback Mike Phipps. Now Warfield will be going after passes thrown by the man who, in effect, tossed him out of town.
The Csonka, Hill and Warfield deals were straight acquisitions of free-agent players. Perhaps frightened by the prospect of getting no compensation for Jim Plunkett, who announced he would play out his option this year, New England traded Plunkett to the San Francisco 49ers for Quarterback Tom Owen and four high draft choices.
In December 1974 Judge William T. Sweigert said that in his opinion the draft was illegal in that there must be a time limit on exclusive negotiating rights. A year later Judge Earl Larson ruled that the Rozelle Rule violated antitrust laws. Since then the league has been unable to win legal sanction for the regulations it says are necessary to maintain the competitive balance essential to professional sport. Apparently the NFL is not going to try to enforce the Rozelle Rule until its status is legally clarified.
Barring intervention by Congress in the form of legislation that would give the NFL the same antitrust exemption enjoyed by major league baseball, the NFL now has two options. One is another session in court; indeed, the NFL is appealing Larson's ruling. The alternative is for the owners to bargain compensation rules as part of a contract with the NFL Players Association.