BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Portions of this column are by Evan Weiner and Heather Rascher from ''A Business History of Professional Football,'' unpublished manuscript (2005).
The biggest game on the NFL season starts on April 6 when National Football League owners and the remnants of the now defunct National Football League Players Association face off in a Minneapolis courtroom. In a script that looks like a sequel to the days after the National Football League Players Association imploded in October 1987 when the NFLPA decided to sue NFL owners for free agency, the NFLPA is back in a Minneapolis courthouse and suing NFL owners. Ten players, including one college player who was not even a part of the defunct NFLPA, Von Miller, are suing the league in an antitrust action hoping the court will lift the owners lockout.
Miller's name is on the suit but he is planning to attend the National Football League Draft, an act that restrictions the freedom of college players in finding jobs. The only reason the draft is legal is through collective bargaining. The owners and players have agreed to a draft. Miller plans to be in the courtroom while New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, one of the 10 plaintiffs, will not attend the opening day festivities. Brees will be at a golf fundraiser.
Brees last week was sounded a conciliatory note to retired and discarded players after being blasted by Sam Huff for criticizing former players who are down and out because of football related injuries. Brees apparently learned well from the late Gene Upshaw (who was the NFLPA Executive Director) who once said that the association could not worry about every problem. While the NFL and the NFLPA duke it out in Minneapolis, the former NFLPA may be involved in another action as former New Orleans and Miami defensive back Gene Atkins is suing the NFL's retirement board after being denied additional health benefits by the group which included the late Dave Duerson. The former defensive back, Duerson, was on the board which said no to Atkins football degenerative claim in 2006. Duerson's suicide in February 2011 raises questions according to the brief filed about Duerson's competence in light of statements that came out after the suicide that he had memory loss and difficulties spelling words.
The NFL and the NFLPA have had more than a half century of issues.
The NFLPA formed in 1956 with help from Creighton Miller, the first General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. Unhappy players in Cleveland and Green Bay assembled a network of "player reps" on each team. The players included Don Shula (Colts), Frank Gifford (Giants), and Norm Van Brocklin (Rams) to represent their teams. The Chicago Bears players did not have a representative. The players first meeting was held in New York in the fall of 1956, after the owners ignored the players' attempts to discuss their requests. The players asked for minimum salaries of $5,000 per season, injury pay, uniform per diems, and for teams to supply their own equipment.
Nothing happened but the players got a big break in 1957 when, the first lawsuit involving professional football and antitrust was filed, Radovich v. NFL, which significantly altered player rights within the league. The case involved a player/coach, George Radovich, who sued the league because the NFL effectively prevented him from attaining employment in the NFL or affiliated leagues, such as the Pacific Coast League, which was in existence at the time. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the NFL was exempted from the antitrust laws, and was appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the trial court, holding professional football subject to the antitrust laws.
The Supreme Court decision changed life for NFL owners. The players could now sue the league on antitrust grounds which they threatened to do. The owners and players settled with the players receiving minimum salaries of $5,000, $50 payment for preseason games, medical coverage for injuries, and a pension.
But the players didn't get what they agreed to and spend the 1958 season chasing the owners to live up to the agreement. The deal was finally signed in 1959.
The players did catch another break when Lamar Hunt started the American Football league and for some college players, they were able to play the NFL off against the AFL in getting some leverage for their initial contract. The AFL-NFL war over established players began in earnest when Pete Gogolak, a kicker on the Buffalo Bills signed a deal with the New York Giants in 1966. What was good for Gogolak and two NFL quarterbacks John Brodie and Roman Gabriel along with Mike Ditka who were been pursued by AFL Commissioner Al Davis to sign with his league was not good for the owners of either league. Brodie, Gabriel and Ditka got raises from their NFL teams. The AFL and NFL announced their intent to merge on June 8, 1966.
The National Football League Players Association wanted to fight the merger but didn't have the funding to do so.
The NFLPA has always been weak and the owners have always known that. The two leagues may have merged, but the player associations did not, as the players on the 16 NFL teams were NFLPA members and the players on the 10 AFL teams were American Football League Players Association members. This caused a major problem in subsequent negotiations as the NFLPA would come to a tentative agreement with the owners on certain collective bargaining issues (such as minimum salaries, retirement age) then the owners would bargain with the AFLPA, who accepted lower terms, which wasn't good for NFLPA members.
There was a brief lockout and a 20-day strike in 1970 that ended just before the 1970 All Star game and which did not result in the cancellation of regular or post-season games, the NFL and NFLPA signed a four-year contract, the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of the NFL, which raised player salary minimums to $12,500 for rookies and $13,000 for veterans, added dental insurance, improved the pension, gave players the right to have agents, gave players representation on the Retirement Board, and provided for impartial arbitration of injury grievances.
(Retired players from that era are still battling the NFL and the NFLPA and the retirement board over injury grievances and the complaining have caught the attention of Congress)
In 1974, the previous CBA was coming to an end. Players were demanding the elimination of the Rozelle Rule and the option clause which kept a player tied to his team in perpetuity unless another team was willing to give up number one draft picks or players to sign a free agent among other things. On July 1, the players went on strike, and were prepared to sit out until a new bargaining agreement was hammered out. The sit-out led to the cancellation of the New York Jets game at New Haven, the first game ever canceled due to a labor impasse. However, by the early part of August, about a quarter of the NFLPA crossed the picket lines, breaking down union solidarity. On August 11, Garvey sent his players back to work after a federal mediator suggested a 14-day cooling off period, instead pursuing the issue through the John Mackey case. The 42-day strike ended that day with nothing gained.
The NFLPA won the Mackey vs. NFL antitrust lawsuit in 1977, but players received only limited free agency with compensation under a new CBA.
On September 21, 1982, NFL players went on strike. It was the longest strike in professional sports in the U.S. at the time and lasted until November 17. The owners responded by locking the players out at the commencement of the strike. During the strike, only 126 of the 224 scheduled regular-season games were played, forcing the league to change the format of post-season play to include 16 teams instead of the usual 10 teams. The players held two "All-Star" games to raise some funding for players without a paycheck. The players got more money but two goals were not met, a form of free agency and more pension money.