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As negotiations in the pro football strike broke off Saturday, the NFL Players Association clung to its demand for a seniority-based "wage scale." Wage scales are common enough in American industry but usually reflect fairly closely what workers are actually paid. The one proposed by the players' union is different. Because of the star system in pro sports and because of bidding for players by both the Canadian Football League and the new U.S. Football League, the NFL would almost inevitably have to pay players who are low in seniority but high in talent far more than scale, even if you include performance bonuses the NFLPA was also calling for. The union further proposed that the wage scale, in effect, be continually adjusted to ensure that total compensation reaches $1.6 billion over four years and that this money be distributed not by the clubs directly but through a fund administered independently of the owners. Its choice of language notwithstanding, the NFLPA wasn't asking for a conventional wage-scale at all but, rather, for something akin to union control of player payrolls.
But management was taking similar linguistic liberties in pushing a settlement that supposedly would preserve the right of "individual salary negotiations." In fact, meaningful salary negotiations could take place only if the NFL were to shed its severe restrictions on free agency. The NFLPA, to be sure, has chosen not to fight for unfettered free agency, concluding that because teams generally play before full houses and share TV revenues equally, they lack the economic incentive to win that would induce them to bid for free agents.
But big salaries to Renaldo Nehemiah, Tom Cousineau and others who, because of unusual circumstances, were able to sidestep the NFL's free-agency restrictions, suggest that the owners do have incentives to win. Indeed, a recent study by Frank A. Scott Jr., an assistant professor of economics at the University of Kentucky, found that the difference to NFL clubs between winning and losing is, on the average, $170,000 a game. Scott explains that victory on the field is of financial benefit to those clubs that don't always fill their stadiums and, although fans may not like to hear it, makes it easier for teams that sell out to raise ticket prices. The economics of the NFL "argue for free agency," says Scott. He adds that, economics aside, most owners take pride in winning, which "makes free-agent players that much more valuable."
Another indication that free agency would greatly increase salaries is the fact that the owners don't want it any more than the NFLPA does. If pushed to the wall on the issue, they would have difficulty defending this opposition. In similarly—and unsuccessfully—resisting free agency, baseball owners could at least argue that, because of the cost of developing players in their farm systems, they had a legitimate stake in keeping them from jumping to other teams. NFL owners have no such excuses; they get their players straight from the colleges, a farm system that costs them nothing. The suspicion lingers that if, early in the negotiations, the NFL had offered to implement true free agency, the players, whose support for NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey was less than solid, would have forced Garvey to accept the offer. Instead, the owners stuck to their untenable position on free agency, overreacted to the players' gesture of pregame solidarity handshakes and turned the stage over to Management Council Executive Director Jack Donlan, a man even more given than Garvey to inflammatory rhetoric. The effect of all this was to unify the NFLPA's rank-and-file as never before.
As the labor-management impasse continued, legal skirmishing was taking place over NFLPA plans to stage televised games between divisional all-star teams starting this Sunday. Those games would have more fan appeal were the teams identified with cities—e.g., the Pittsburgh Pickets vs. the New York Unionists—but an NFLPA spokesman admitted that the thought never occurred to union leaders. The NFLPA was sufficiently provident, however, to arrange injury insurance from Lloyd's of London for players who compete in all-star games. For its part, management said it would consider reopening training camps and trying to suit up enough NFL and pickup players to stage what, in a probable further debasement of the language, would be billed as NFL games.
AS OTHERS SEE US
Steve Williams, a senior starting offensive guard on the University of Oklahoma football team, didn't spend his vacation last summer on a construction job or a trip to Yosemite. Taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows an athlete to retain college eligibility in one sport while playing professionally in another, Williams starred on the pro wrestling circuit in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Billed as Dr. Death, he wowed grunt-and-groan fans—and played up his Sooner affiliation—with a series of football-inspired moves called the Oklahoma Stampede.
In the morality play that is pro wrestling, Williams was depicted as a "good guy." But what of his forbidding nickname? As it happens, he came by the moniker more or less honestly. Williams had worked in a cemetery while attending high school in Lakewood, Colo., and when he participated in a wrestling match wearing a hockey mask to protect a broken nose, one of his coaches was moved to say, "Here comes Dr. Death." The name stuck.