Was the end of Super Bowl XVI the start of the longest off-season in NFL history? "If the NFL Management Council takes the position of management in baseball, this could be the last game for a long while," says Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association, otherwise known as "the union." The collective bargaining agreement between the players and the Management Council, which represents the owners, expires on July 15, and although that day is almost half a year away, there already is an air of fatalism surrounding them, a feeling that the issues, the deep distrust both sides harbor for one another and the personalities involved add up to a strike.
None of those personalities is more controversial than the 41-year-old Garvey, who has spent most of his professional life with the Players Association. People either love him or loathe him. Because he went to college and law school at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, NFL Establishment types occasionally try to paint him as a wild-eyed radical. Garvey can be wild-eyed at times, but he is not the "alleged bomb-thrower" sportscaster Brent Musburger once introduced him as to a nationwide audience on CBS-TV's
NFL Today. A man with a penchant for social and economic causes, Garvey sees himself as "a progressive in the Wisconsin tradition." His friend and mentor, Gaylord Nelson, the former U.S. Senator and Governor of Wisconsin, says, "Ed's first-rate in every way. He's an exceptionally talented and practical man of great integrity. He also has a sense of humor, and I don't trust anyone in authority who doesn't have that." In fact, some of Garvey's difficulties in dealing with his opponents seem to arise because he will veer away from the main argument occasionally to make a wisecrack. Asked recently, after an interview, if he had neglected to mention any owner in particular, Garvey said, "Dracula, Attila the Hun." Characterizations such as that may be quotable, and are quoted, but do little to lessen tensions.
Representing the owners is another feisty Irishman, John M. (Jack) Donlan, 46, who became executive director of the Management Council in 1980. The point man in negotiations, Donlan works with the council's executive committee, which is composed of Chuck Sullivan of the Patriots, Mike Brown of the Bengals, Leonard Tose of the Eagles, Hugh Culverhouse of the Buccaneers, Jim Kensil of the Jets and Dan Rooney of the Steelers—hard-liners all, except for the last. Donlan says Commissioner Pete Rozelle has nothing directly to do with the negotiations because he is "the commissioner of all football: the owners, the players, the fans." That the commissioner isn't present in person at negotiating sessions suits Garvey just fine. "Going one-on-one with Rozelle is like trying to nail custard to the wall," he says. However, Gene Upshaw, Raider guard and president of the NFLPA, indicated at a press conference in Detroit last Friday that Rozelle should be at the bargaining table.
Donlan, labor lawyer and a former member of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, worked from 1971 to 1980 for National Airlines as senior vice-president for industrial relations, and during that time he negotiated more than 40 contracts with eight unions and went through four strikes, the longest a 14-month walkout by the Machinists Union. The Machinists, who struck over a grievance, eventually won after going all the way to the Supreme Court, but Wilbur Spurlock of that union, who went head to head with Donlan, gives him the highest marks. "Jack was a tough negotiator," Spurlock says. "Basically what he was doing was upholding his boss's wishes. The [NFLJ owners couldn't have found a better man. If they want to try to break the players'——, Donlan is the tool to do it."
Garvey and Donlan have met privately only three times, the first two meetings taking place in the Machinists Building in Washington, D.C., where, by coincidence, the Players Association has its headquarters. (The third time they had lunch during the AFL-CIO convention in New York City this fall.) As Donlan recalls it, the first meeting occurred about a year and a half ago. He was in the building visiting old adversaries and decided to drop in on Garvey to "introduce myself as the new kid on the block." Donlan says that Garvey was very curt, and after 20 minutes Donlan left, thinking to himself of Garvey, "Here is a smart-ass." The second time he met Garvey, Donlan says, Garvey asked him if the Management Council was going to continue to help fund a career counseling program run by the union, and after Donlan said it wouldn't until the council received information on the program's effectiveness, Garvey turned away and began opening his mail, "kind of like I was dismissed."
Garvey says, "I absolutely disagree with his account of what happened, and even then it's terribly irrelevant." What is relevant to Garvey is that Donlan seemed to be dragging his heels about even discussing how to handle the negotiations—housekeeping items like the size and shape of the table. Although a meeting to discuss such matters is now set for Feb. 16, Donlan, a counterpuncher, would have preferred to wait until after the third week in March, when the players finish their convention in Albuquerque. "That's when they get their marching orders," he says. To Garvey, this is so much nonsense. The players' demands, he says, have been outlined (see box, page 32), and the convention will merely "fine-tune" them.
The demands fall into five major categories, the key being the one that calls for the players to derive their wages from 55% of the NFL teams' total gross revenues. Garvey contends there are several reasons why the players should share the wealth. First, the NFL clubs are "socialistic," because all teams earn approximately the same amount of money no matter how they fare on the field. All clubs, winners or losers, share equally in the TV money, all home teams keep 60% of the gate, all road teams collect 40% of the gate, "and," says Garvey, "a point most people don't know at all, all teams share playoff monies, the gate receipts and the TV revenues, equally.'' Garvey adds, " John Mecom may be the smartest owner because, though the Saints have never had a winning season, he's received, as much money from the playoffs and the Super Bowl as Pittsburgh and Dallas." As a result of this "corporate socialism," Garvey says, the owners have no economic incentive to sign free agents or pay established players more money. In fact, he asserts, owners can realize significant savings by replacing veterans with less expensive and less skilled rookies; in essence, he says, the owners almost have an incentive to lose.
Garvey also contends that a union review of all player contracts indicates that the clubs compare salaries and get together to keep them as low as possible, an assertion Donlan calls "utter nonsense." Garvey says that back in 1967 when the NFL had to compete with the AFL for players, 67.7% of the gross revenues in pro football went for player salaries, the highest percentage for any sport. Now, without competition, except that which Canadian pro football offers, the NFL expends, according to Garvey, only 26% to 30% of its gross revenues on player salaries, the lowest for any sport. (The Management Council says the figure is closer to 44%.) And even though pro football is " America's Favorite Sport," as determined most recently by a
New York Times/CBS News poll, NFL players lag way behind baseball and basketball players in earnings. In 1980, the average NBA salary was $186,000, the average major league baseball salary $143,000 and the average NFL salary $78,000. The only way for NFL players to get a fair measure of their worth, concludes Garvey, is by collecting a percentage of the gross, and 55% is, in his words, "the bottom line."
How would the players divvy up the gross? All the players would be paid out of one pool, made up of 55% of every club's gross revenues. Regardless of position, every player would receive the same base salary, depending on the number of years he had been in the league. Using 1980 average salaries and gross revenue, first-year players could expect to find their salaries increased by almost 50%, from $51,087 to $75,000. Third-year players would jump from $67,868 to $105,000 and fifth-year players from $87,840 to $140,000.
Some of today's higher-paid players might wind up on the short end, although the NFLPA's proposed contract guarantees their current wages with a cost-of-living increase to follow in later years. "Some quarterbacks like it, some don't," Garvey admits, "but generally speaking, most quarterbacks will be doing better than they're doing now." And there's still more money in the pool to be added to the base salaries. Players would get incentive bonuses based on the number of times they started or their total playing time. Those chosen for the Pro Bowl would get an extra $50,000 apiece. Some of the remaining money in the 55% pool would be used to create a jumbo jackpot for players on teams that make the playoffs. Based on figures calculated for 1982, Garvey says that any player on the Super Bowl-winning 49ers would have wound up with more than $195,000 in addition to his base salary.