To Market We Go
Reduced to its essentials, the NFL labor settlement announced last week gives the players vastly increased free agency in exchange for a salary cap for the owners. To be sure, the cap won't kick in until next year at the earliest, and free agency will be available only to veterans—at the outset those with five years' service, later those with four—and, for the most part, only during late winter and spring. In addition, each team can deny free agency to one so-called franchise player it designates and can assert the right of first refusal for two players in 1993 and one in '94. Also, the four teams that came out of last weekend's playoff games as conference finalists can't sign any free agents this year unless they lose one or more of their own players to free agency.
Even with these restrictions, the seven-year deal is a triumph for the players, whose bold legal offensive arising out of their disastrous 1987 strike has won them a degree of player movement once thought unattainable. The agreement will result in higher player salaries, and its complexities will test the mettle of front offices, which will have to beef up their scouting of other teams; one team that's particularly deficient in this area is the Cincinnati Bengals.
Teams will also have to make hard decisions about their own personnel. Who, if anybody, should be designated a franchise player? Should they try to sign one player or another to a long-term contract? Who should be their right-of-first-refusal guys? How can they keep their best players happy so they won't leave?
This much is clear: The NFL can now pursue plans, shelved because of the labor rancor that has dogged the league, to expand to two new cities, probably by the 1995 season. The most immediate beneficiaries, though, are a handful of players—most notably Philadelphia Eagle Pro Bowl defensive end Reggie White—who had an antitrust suit pending against the NFL and can now, under terms of the settlement, sell themselves to the highest bidder. On Feb. 1 as many as 350 other players will become free agents, too. One of them. Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who thinks he's underpaid by the Steelers, exulted after the labor truce: "I couldn't ask for anything more than my basic freedom. In baseball, basketball and society in general, you can at some point of your life shop yourself around. Now I have that right, too."
While other general managers ponder the vagaries of the NFL settlement, the New York Jets' Dick Steinberg, whose woeful team has 14 potential free agents, has already reached one firm decision. Noting that under the agreement, a franchise player must receive at least the average salary of the five best-paid players at his position, Steinberg says, "We won't have a franchise player. We don't want to pay any of these guys that kind of money."
Our favorite monthly magazine, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED FOR KIDS, has polled children about how they would change sports. The kids called for lower salaries for athletes, elimination of team names that Native Americans find offensive and the banning of artificial turf. They would like to see less violence in hockey, an end to boxing and tougher penalties for drug use by athletes. They think that soccer players should be allowed to use their hands and that basketball players should be given unlimited free throws until they miss. Finally, they would like a pro athlete to visit every youngster in America and they want all kids allowed into games free.
The disparity between the number of blacks playing sports and the far smaller number employed in coaching and front-office jobs is drawing the ire of civil rights leaders, some of whom met last week in New York with officials of major league baseball, the NBA, the NFL and their players' associations, and discussed a possible boycott by black athletes. Hiring practices in sports have also been assailed by Jesse Jackson, who is forming a Rainbow Commission on Fairness in Athletics, dedicated to getting more blacks and other minorities into the broadcast booth as well as into front-office jobs.
In singling out sports, the civil rights leaders can point to the number of qualified blacks, former players and otherwise, who are routinely passed over in favor of whites for head coaching or managing jobs. Surprisingly, given the uproar over Cincinnati Red owner Marge Schott's racist utterances, the sport that has made the greatest strides in this area is baseball. Thirty-one percent of baseball players are members of minorities, and with the off-season hirings of Don Baylor by the Colorado Rockies, Tony Perez by the Reds and Dusty Baker by the San Francisco Giants, 21% (six of 28) of the managers are too. By contrast, in the NFL 64% of the players but only 7% (two of 28) of the head coaches are minorities, and in the NBA the disparity is even more glaring: 75% of the players and 11% (three of 27) of the coaches are minorities.