THE NFL STRIKE: A LEGACY OF PRIMITIVENESS AND MISCALCULATION
As another week of the NFL strike—the seventh—passed without a settlement, all the two sides had to show for their haggling was increased bitterness and a growing sense of doom about the already mangled 1982 season. As the owners' top negotiator, Jack Donlan, put it on Saturday, "We are not close philosophically, conceptually or economically."
What was the problem? Pro football wasn't exactly a depressed industry. The owners weren't going broke. The work force was well paid. No one could plead poverty. Why couldn't the owners and the players work things out?
The answers offered by Jack Getman, a professor of labor law at Yale, make as much sense as anything we've heard on the subject so far. Getman, who has engaged in labor negotiations on behalf of the United Steelworkers, the Connecticut state police and various teachers' groups, once taught a course on sports law at Yale and has kept an eye on the NFL negotiations. Getman notes that labor-management relations in professional sports tend to be relatively primitive and, at the same time, complex.
"Because of the structure of organized sport, it's not easy for the negotiating teams to make decisions to compromise," Getman says. " General Motors' negotiators come to the bargaining table with broad discretion, and only occasionally have to check back for instructions. In sport, with separate teams and ownerships, there are more constituencies for management negotiators to deal with. The players have conflicting constituencies, too. Player reps are under pressure from the linemen to be tough and from the stars to be softer. Other unions—the U.A.W., the Steelworkers—also have differences, but they've learned techniques for resolving them. I don't have the sense that the NFL union has been very efficient in developing those techniques."
In Getman's view, in fact, neither the management nor the union leadership has evinced much skill in dealing with its own people. "It's always easy to criticize the people across the table from you," he says. "But it's a measure of professionalism to be able to talk tough to your own people, to tell them at some point, 'You're full of——. You're cutting your own throat.' " Getman feels that NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey scores lower than chief management negotiator Jack Donlan in this area, possibly because of insecurity over having been outfoxed in the last contract settlement in 1977. "Talking compromise to the players doesn't seem to be a task Garvey relishes. It's just speculation on my part, but if he makes the kind of speeches at the table that he does in public, it can't be healthy for negotiations. He makes and remakes the same points, which can be annoying, and he doesn't seem to listen to what other people are saying."
Another problem cited by Getman has to do with attitude. He observes that many pro sports owners are self-made men with an anti-union bent and tend to be "buccaneers" by nature. In selecting labor negotiators they tend to pass over those who emphasize accommodation with unions and settle instead on we'll-show-them-who's-boss types like baseball's Ray Grebey and the NFL's Donlan. However, Getman discounts rhetoric by player reps that Donlan wants to "bust the union." He points out that the NFL needs a union to protect itself from prosecution for antitrust violations. "A lot of what the NFL does—college drafts, trades, restrictions on free agency—is clearly in restraint of trade," Getman says. "The NFL can get away with it only because it has bargained for those things with the union. But the league would like to keep the union weak. It's bargaining, not to kill the union, but to assert domination."
It was clear that the owners had made Garvey's job easier by misreading the mood of the players. The big rookie contracts of the last few years generated a great rumbling among the masses. The lessons learned since the Pop Warner League—one mustn't rock the boat, mustn't do anything to disrupt team unity—die hard. But those lessons have been undermined by a growing resentment toward a system that rewards a glamorous rookie more for his senior year in college than it does a workaday performer for a whole NFL career. It was to this discontent that Garvey attuned his contract demands—a wage scale and greater job security for veteran players. He found the right issues for his membership. He struck a nerve. And what did the owners do? They threatened to fine the players for shaking hands. They said, we won't negotiate your concepts. They did some of Garvey's work for him. They firmed the players up.
There are two other actors in this drama who need to be mentioned. One is Sam Kagel, the 73-year-old veteran of many labor wars who showed up to mediate the talks three weeks ago. Kagel is a head-knocker, and there's reason to think that the last thing needed at the table was a third hard-nosed party. The other protagonist is the press, whose periodic reporting of "progress" in the talks, sometimes based on information from just one side, only prompted the other side, or so it often seemed, to stiffen its resolve. "The press has been used to carry messages back and forth," said Getman. "It has been used to create a crisis atmosphere." As if the rival sides in this dispute needed any help on that score.
MOST VALUABLE PAPA
An event much discussed by TV commentators during the World Series took place six days after the Cardinals' Bruce Sutter struck out Gorman Thomas of the Brewers for the final out in the fall classic. At 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 26, Michele Yount gave birth to a son. Mother and child are doing well and so is the father, Brewers shortstop Robin Yount. The whole family will be doing even better this week if, as expected, Justin Yount's father is named the American League's Most Valuable Player for 1982.