"Coach Bengtson really got on Robinson during the 1968 season," reports a now-retired Green Bay player whose continuing connections in pro ball inhibit his willingness to be identified. "Bengtson kept chewing Robinson out for not playing well, kept charging that he should have kept his mind on his football playing instead of negotiating pension contracts. It was childish."
In 1968 Kermit Alexander intercepted nine passes and played in the Pro Bowl. In 1969 his days with San Francisco were drawing to a close. "Coach Dick Nolan jumped all over him," says a player still with the 49ers. "We kept asking Kermit 'What's wrong?' but I guess the answer was pretty obvious. They finally had a shouting match during a game. The sad thing is that Nolan is a great guy who is really with the players. He was just caught in the middle."
The obvious result of this harassment campaign is that the Players Association has a hard time finding people willing to be reps. "At our last election the first five nominees declined the honor," a newly elected rep said recently.
"The atmosphere is very bad for us," admits John Mackey, the Baltimore tight end who serves as the Players Association president. "The player reps don't feel really free to do their best. When a player rep gets traded it also disrupts our organization. He has to be replaced. That's why we are now planning to build a strong front office, run by professional administrators and a paid, fulltime executive director. I certainly can't afford to go through another year like 1970."
Mackey's troubles began shortly after his election. The previous contract expired on Feb. 1, 1970, and talks on the new contract started in March. Primarily at management's behest, the meetings up through June took on the look of a luxury tour. Honolulu one week, New York the next. Then Bimini, Miami, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Chicago. "It was costing us something like $4,000 a trip," says Association Business Manager Mai Kennedy. "The Doral Country Club. They always wanted to meet at places like the Doral Country Club."
"We suspected it was deliberately designed to make things difficult for us," adds Ed Garvey, Players Association labor counsel. "They sought to delay, delay, delay in the hopes that the players would start getting nervous about the start of training camps and give in." What the players were asking for was a dramatically increased contribution to the pension fund, as well as improvements in the insurance program, exhibition-game pay and expense reimbursements in other areas. They felt justified in requesting increased benefits on the basis of a much-improved TV contract Rozelle had recently signed, and came armed with statistics proving that the owners could easily afford the new demands. But the owners rejected them and counterproposed a new retirement plan that would actually have reduced their previous commitment. They also suggested that guidelines dealing with grooming and with civic responsibilities undertaken by the players be written into the contract. The owners had traveled 75,000 miles to hold meetings and had produced little more than a request that the players regularly visit the barber.
"They have no respect for our association," says one NFL lineman. "They don't even want to treat us like adults. The oldtimers like Curly Lambeau in Green Bay, George Halas in Chicago, George Marshall in Washington and the Maras in New York came into football because they loved the game. They made money out of football and they exercised an old-fashioned and restrictive paternalism, but at least they respected the players as players. Most of the new owners now buying in have made their fortunes outside of sport. They come into football either because it's a big ego trip or because they see a chance to make some more really big money. They look upon us as dumb jocks who should be happy to accept what they offer."
During the negotiations the owners seemed continually baffled at hearing their players use phrases like "militancy" and "strong and unified." At one point, when the bargaining grew particularly heated, the owners evidently took these phrases at their face value, for they called in security cops for protection—or, at least, so several members of the Players Association contend.
Many of the players claim that security men of another type were being employed by the commissioner's office and that they were being spied upon in various ways. There is scant evidence to support this contention, but a statement made at one point by Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys, tends to validate it. Schramm, assisted by Rankin Smith, chairman of the board of the Atlanta Falcons, and George Halas, acted as chief negotiator for the owners. Atone session, Schramm informed members of the players' executive committee that every detail of a recent mass meeting at which the players had finally voted to strike, down to who said what, was known to the owners.
"As far as this office is concerned, stories that we were spying on the players are totally untrue," says Rozelle adamantly. "Rumors of that sort were just part of the atmosphere. People were getting tense and excited. As a matter of fact, one of the players involved in the negotiations left his briefcase in a Washington cab. All the cab driver knew was that it belonged to someone in pro football, so he delivered it to Eddie Williams [Washington President Edward Bennett Williams] at the Redskins' office. Williams knew it probably had something in it that would have been of interest to the owners, but he sent it right over to the player at his hotel without taking a look at it."