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On some fateful Sunday afternoon this fall, an NFL stadium filled with fans and television personnel may become the victim of a unique group of no-shows—the players. Don't panic just yet, sports fans, but the prospect of a players' strike is a possibility as a result of player dissatisfaction over the absence of bidding for and signing and enriching of 80-odd NFL free agents. The principals in this prospective confrontation are the NFL Players Association ( Ed Garvey, executive director), and the board of Player Representatives vs. the NFL's Management Council. The two sides appeared to have ended their three-year hassle in March 1977, when both agreed to a five-year collective-bargaining agreement, but...time out.
One of the major points in that contract was Article XV, which laid down the guidelines on free agents, those players who have finished the option year of their contracts or whose contracts have expired. The old Rozelle Rule, which a federal court deemed was in violation of antitrust laws, allowed the NFL commissioner to determine player or draft-choice compensation for teams that lost free agents to other clubs when the clubs could not agree on their own. Article XV was drawn up to create a more open market for free agents by determining compensation, if any, within a given time frame. Once a player's contract expires on Feb. 1, he can entertain offers from any other club. By the same date, his old club can make him a qualifying, or first-refusal, offer. This gives the old club the right to match any new offer and retain the player's services or to release him in exchange for predetermined compensation in draft choices. (An offer of $50,000 or less requires no compensation.)
If the player receives no offers by April 15, he goes into a contractual "limbo" until June 1, when he has to be notified in writing whether his original team wants him or not. If it does, he receives a 10% raise or the last best written offer the club has made. If his original club doesn't want him, he becomes "totally free" and available to any other club in the league without compensation to his former club.
The Players Association contends, however, that the owners have conspired to breach the spirit of Article XV by making offers that are deliberately low or refusing to bid at all for free agents. Garvey says that during the three seasons the article has been in force, only Corner-back Norm Thompson, who went from the Cardinals to the Colts in 1977, did so in what the Players' Association feels should be the spirit of Article XV. In nearly every other case, free agents have received few offers and have eventually signed with their original clubs for less money than a free market should bring, at least according to the Players Association. Garvey's translation: collusion.
A case in point is Mike Thomas, the Redskin running back who played out his option in 1978. Thomas, who was paid a reported $110,000 last season, asked the Redskins for a new contract that would pay him $700,000 to $800,000 over five years. The Redskins countered with a qualifying offer of $90,000 for one year. Thomas didn't get a single offer from any of the 27 other clubs, who knew full well that he had missed several games because of an injury that some of his teammates felt shouldn't have incapacitated him. Therefore, unless Thomas persuades the Redskins to up their offer, he'll have to settle for the 10% increase in Washington—or quit the game or go to Canada.
"The owners have told us time and time again that they want to keep the lid on salaries," says Garvey. "They don't want to see a baseball situation occur in pro football. As one owner said to me, 'Why should I bid for one of Bud Adams' players? If I do, he's going to get mad and bid for one of mine. Then I get one new player, lose two and wind up paying the new guy more than I should.' The situation we have in football is that stadiums are virtually sold out, so no one individual makes as much difference [to attendance] as he might in baseball, basketball or hockey. So if you go out and hire Mike Thomas, he won't bring any fans in, because they're already in. So most of the owners say, 'I'm not going to go after this guy because it doesn't make any economic difference. My bottom line is the same in terms of income, so I'm going to save the $150,000 it would take to sign Mike Thomas.' "
And for those who consider $90,000 a hefty salary, the Players Association is quick to point out that each NFL club, whether its record is 16-0 or 0-16, receives an average of $5.5 million a year in television revenue alone.
"We want to see players get the same percentage of the gross they got a few years ago," Garvey says. "Instead, it keeps declining. If the players felt they were getting fair salaries, all this would be irrelevant. As it is, they feel they're getting shortchanged. The league claims that the average free-agent salary went up 27.8% last year. Assuming they're correct—and they've never sent us any figures to prove it—the problem we have with that is the average salary went up 44% under the old Rozelle Rule."
For its part, management contends that the price tag on free agents is too high before June 1 and that signing them is too often an expensive gamble at any time. In Thomas' case, any club that signed him before mid-April would have been obligated to give the Redskins its top choice in next month's player draft. Had a team waited longer to acquire him, it still would risk a "high" salary on a running back who has been injury prone and whose performance curve, owing to age and the punishment he takes at his position, soon will head south—if it hasn't already.
The clubs also claim that the free-agent list is loaded with malcontents, players of marginal talent or those who play positions in which the teams are already well stocked. And it is possible that the injury-protection benefits in the current contract have generated a widespread reluctance to acquire an older, high-salaried player who has had a history of injury. A team is now liable for an injured player's salary both during the season in which he is hurt and for half of the following season, up to a total of $37,500.