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Signs of the times: Two teams meet at midfield to shake hands, and the crowd boos. Pete Rozelle, whose theme has always been "Keep the legislators out of pro football," now runs to Congress to get help to control Raider owner Al Davis. Coke doesn't come in a red and white can any more; it's in an attaché case. And a new league arrives on the scene swearing everything will be kosher and aboveboard—and then it raids NFL coaching staffs.
Outlined against a pile of legal briefs, the Four Horsemen rode into the 1982 NFL season. Labor unrest, drugs, personnel raids and Congress. As we went to press, the big questions were: Will there be a strike this season, or a lockout? Will testing for drugs be part of the game plan? Which way will Congress swing? And how about the ambitious United States Football League? How about it, Pete Rozelle? How about the USFL?
"In the old days," the commissioner says, "that would be Number One on the priority list. Now it's Number Four."
All four are connected. The threatened strike is the glue that binds. The USFL, or the prospect of a special Players Association All-Star League, probably killed any idea of a lockout by NFL owners. If the players were locked out, they could sign with anyone they wanted to. The owners might take them to court, but they'd be hard pressed to win. How could they hold someone to a contract if they had "thrown" him out of work? But the presence of the USFL also provides the owners with a reason to fight NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey's percentage-of-the-gross and fixed-salary-scale concepts.
"If the NFL agrees to fixed-salary structures for five years," says Howard Slusher, the agent for San Diego Quarterback Dan Fouts and others, "then it gives real life to the new league. If I know what Dan Fouts is going to be worth for the next five years, and there's a new league offering significantly higher pay, where do you think I'd advise him to go? The USFL guys say they're not going to bid for high-priced talent, but if a George Allen or a John Ralston has a shot at some superstars of the NFL, do you think anyone's going to stop him? Plus there's the publicity value. Look what happened when Allen signed an NFL third-round draft choice [Tim Wrightman, tight end from UCLA]. He got more ink than Moses did when he came down with the Ten Commandments."
Proposed drug testing by urinalysis has created a rallying cry for the Players Association: invasion of privacy. In the NFLPA's attempt to mobilize a significant strike force, no symbol or gesture (e.g., the pregame handshakes) or slogan is overlooked.
Rozelle's attempt to get Congress to pass a law granting pro sports leagues an antitrust exemption, which would reverse the court decision allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to L.A., is directly linked to the contract negotiations, says Garvey. It has become another rallying point. Rozelle says that there is no connection and that Garvey's attempt to tie the two together is another propaganda move.
The league has hired a high-powered lobbying team to help push a bill through Congress—"hopefully before the end of the year," Rozelle says. The first part of the bill would exempt the NFL from antitrust restrictions if the owners banded together to prevent a franchise shift. The second would uphold the league's right to revenue sharing, particularly TV revenue. The thrust of this part is to keep maverick owners like Al Davis from making their own TV deals in the future.
Garvey sees a more insidious threat. He feels that the long-range effect of a law defining the NFL as a joint venture would be to kill off any union attempt to bring an antitrust suit. It would take the teeth out of the victory the NFLPA won in court in 1975 when the Rozelle Rule, which concerned free-agent compensation, was judged an antitrust violation, thereby opening the door for free agency. Garvey feels that passage of the bill the NFL owners want would cripple collective bargaining in the future and permit the owners virtually to dictate conditions to the players.
"Why is Rozelle worried about having to be protected in sharing TV revenues?" asks Ben Zelenko, special counsel to the NFLPA. "The league is already protected under the Sports Broadcasting Act, passed in 1961. No, what Ed's afraid of is that the current legislation is too broad. There are too many loopholes. It's the fear of the unknown."