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For coaches and players disaffected with or passed over by the NFL, the Canadian Football League has been a safe port in a storm. No CFL team has provided a more inviting haven than the free-spending Montreal Alouettes. But that team's most recent proprietor, Nelson Skalbania, has fallen on hard times. The result is a thoroughly muddled ownership situation that has prompted the CFL to institute proceedings to revoke the Montreal club's franchise. It has also caused two of the Als' most prominent American refugees, George Allen and Vince Ferragamo, to cast wistful eyes southward and a third, Tom Cousineau, to pack for home.
Allen, the former NFL coach who had moved into the Alouettes' front office with the intention of buying the club (SI, March 15), resigned as the team's president last week out of frustration over Skalbania's failure to clear up the club's considerable debts. But Allen left the door open for a possible return to Montreal; his resignation, he said, was meant to pressure Skalbania into finally getting the Alouettes out of hock. Ferragamo, the former Ram quarterback who was a costly bust with Montreal, was seeking a settlement covering the remaining three years of his contract with the Als that would allow him to return to the NFL. There were rumors that the Rams, who still own his NFL rights, might then trade him to the Oilers or the Bears.
Cousineau's case was somewhat different. An All-America linebacker from Ohio State, he signed a three-year contract with the Alouettes in 1979 after spurning the Buffalo Bills, which had made him the top pick in that year's NFL draft. In returning now to the NFL, Cousineau benefited from a provision in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement that allows anybody who plays pro football outside the NFL for two or more years to return as a free agent, subject only to the exercise of an NBA-style right of first refusal by the team holding his rights. A club signing such a player wouldn't have to pay the usual compensation to the team holding his rights, a requirement that has severely restricted free-agent movement in the NFL.
Cousineau's arrival on the open market provided a rare test of the National Football League Players Association's contention that, because of full stadiums and shared TV revenues, NFL owners lack the incentives of their counterparts in baseball and the NBA to pay top dollar for free agents. It's this belief that has prompted the NFLPA, now engaged in contract talks with the NFL, to push for a percentage-of-gross-revenues pool instead of unfettered free agency for its members. But the notion that owners wouldn't bid for free agents was undermined by the case of Cornerback Eric Harris, who was drafted by Kansas City in 1977 but instead played three seasons in the CFL. Harris was able to come into the NFL in 1980 as a free agent subject only to right of first refusal. He negotiated with several NFL teams and accepted an offer from the Saints that was matched by the Chiefs. The deal was reportedly for $1.04 million over four years, uncommonly lavish terms for a cornerback.
The repatriated Cousineau wound up with quite a deal, too. He shopped himself around the NFL before settling on the Oilers' reported offer of $3.5 million over five years. Last week the Bills matched Houston's figure, then traded Cousineau to Cleveland, his hometown, where he became the highest-paid player in Browns, and possibly NFL, history.
NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey argues that only three teams "seriously" bid for Harris and questions whether Harris' deal with the Chiefs was as favorable as reported. Garvey also claims that only three teams showed real interest in Cousineau. "If that was a test of free agency, it failed," he says. "Twenty-five teams didn't even bid." But not all teams actively pursue free agents in baseball or the NBA, either; it takes only two teams to create a bidding war. To be sure, Harris and Cousineau undoubtedly benefited from the fact that they have constituted practically the entire supply of free agents in recent years; under a regular free-agent system, their asking prices might have been deflated by the availability of other stars. Nevertheless, the contracts lavished on them suggest that if NFL free agents were truly free, the league's supposedly complacent owners would pay generously for their services.
LAST OF ITS KIND?
To raise the hackles of some participants in this year's Boston Marathon, all one had to do was mention the name of Marshall Medoff. Last year the Boston Athletic Association, which stages the marathon, hired Medoff, a lawyer, as its agent to solicit commercial sponsorship, which could change the very nature of the venerable event. By tradition the Boston Marathon has been held on Patriots' Day, a Monday, has started in the suburb of Hopkinton and, for the last 17 years, has ended at the Prudential Center, home of the insurance company that has partly underwritten the race during that span. Those are traditions that Medoff seems willing to change to attract television and other benefactors. Thanks to his efforts, there were some new corporate sponsors for this year's race. Come next year the marathon probably will have even more sponsors, will be held on a Sunday and, assuming the overlords of amateur sport give it and other marathons the go-ahead, will offer prize money to runners. The race may also be run on an altered course, if only because Prudential, unhappy about the many changes, says it's withdrawing its support and use of its building as a terminus.
The foreknowledge that the '82 marathon would possibly be the last of its kind served to make this year's race seem even more special than usual. Boston is a city that turns out in droves to cheer 2:10 and 4:10 marathoners alike, and the crowds at the April 19 race were larger and more congenial than ever. There were cheers for winner (in a course-record 2:08:51) Alberto Salazar and runner-up Dick Beardsley, who finished two seconds behind him, and for the women's winner, Charlotte Teske of West Germany (2:29:33). There were also outpourings of affection for hometown favorite and four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers, who placed fourth, and for 74-year-old John Kelly, who was competing in his 51st marathon and finished in 4:01:18. Just to prove beyond any doubt that this race was blessed, the weather was glorious. And oh, yes, in Fenway Park, just a block off the course, the pain of a 5-4 Red Sox loss to Toronto was partially eased by the fact that Yaz went 3 for 4.