University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
The NFL Strikes of 1982 and 1987
The National Football League (NFL) strikes of 1982 and 1987 were considered groundbreaking events in the NFL but not because it succeeded in its aims. On the contrary, they can justifiably be called abysmal failures. In its failures, the two events gained notoriety and a place in history as: the shortest season in the history of football; the first time replacements were used in a professional football game; and focused on the issue of free agency among football players. This paper will provide an overview of the actual events and discuss the how it went wrong.
In order to understand the NFL strikes of 1982 and 1987, it would be important to give a background on the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The union formed with the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns agreed to join up in 1956 to demand minimum wage and other benefits of NFL players. They were helped in getting the rest of the players of the 28 teams in the NFL sign in by Don Shula (Baltimore Colts), Frank Gifford and Sam Gifford (New York Giants) and Norm Van Brocklin (Los Angeles Rams). (“National Football League Players Association,” 2007)
The NFLPA was not blessed with much influence with the owners of the league, and were pretty much ineffective in pushing their aims and goals through. An attempt to strike prior to the start of the 1956 season did not even get off the ground. Prior to 1982, players operated under a very loose arrangement with team owners; signing bonuses were unheard of and often there were no contracts. The pay scale was far from standard; rookies could be earning more than players of several years standing, unbeknownst to either player. Usually, it was no big deal, until players found out about, usually during shower conversations. (Forbes, 2001)
Players also had the most rudimentary of health insurance and training support in terms of finances from the team owners. It was not a given that player uniforms were paid for by the team owners and that they were paid even when injured and unable to play.
Because team owners refused to take the calls of the NFLPA for meetings seriously, declining even to show up, the union leaders threatened to file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, emboldened by the a recent ruling the Supreme Court in which it denied immunity of the NFL from antitrust laws. The union milked this for all it was worth in the ensuing years, succeeding in winning small victories such as pension and health plans.
However, it was not until 1968, twelve years after it was first formed that it became recognized as the official labor union of the NFL. Players went on strike duriong training led by the Cleveland Brown’s Bernie Parrish at the instigation of a major labor union, and the team owners retaliated by locking down the training camps. Afyet a brief interval, a compromise was rached the the NFLPA gained its union contract, such as it was (“National Football League Players Association,” 2007).
The contract was one-sided at best, leaving players with very little leverage during subsequent strikes in 1970, 1974 and 1975 and they were plagued by players crossing the picket line, breaking up the solidarity (Staudohar, 1988).
III. The strike of ‘82
The impetus for the 1982 strike was a combination of several factors. After the aborted 1974 strike, lawyer Edward Garvey took over a executive director of the NFLPA. Formerly from the firm representing the NFLPA, Garvey was not new to collective bargaining, and he was determined that the players would get the concessions they have been asking for.
It was also at this time that the news spread about an agreement with a television station would almost tripled the owners’ television revenues compared to the previous year. Moreover, the United States Football League (USFL) was slated to start in 1983, effectively breaking the monopoly of the NFL and giving football players more bargaining leverage.
All these factors led to the declaration of a strike by the NFLPA on September 19, 1982 and it would last 57 days until November 16 of the same year. The union demanded that players get 55% of the gross revenues of the league. (“National Football League Players Association,” 2007)
Despite the solid front displayed by the players, the NFL refused to give in, opting to shave 7 games off the 16-game season, which was the period in which the strike was ongoing. In the meantime, union leaders organized several “all-star games” but these did not fare well with the fans nor did it generate sufficient interest for television coverage. In the end, with the networks failing to support the players and the NFL standing fast, the strike ended without the players getting their 55%. When the USFL started in 1983, players were able to bargain for better terms or leave the league. (Staudohar, 1988)
- The 1987 strike
In the interim between the 1982 and 1987 strike, developments in the professional sport led to the demands for better pay as well as the right to free agency. The contract between the NFL and the union was set to expire on August 31, 1987. In 1986, the USFL ceased to operate, emboldening the NFL to allow the strike to happen without fear of the players going to the USFL. The NFLPA had also managed to publish the first NFLPA Base Salary Directory, which provided the basis for salary negotiations for players. (Forbes, 2001)
The actual strike was again triggered by a television contract, this time increasing the NFL owners’ revenues to $17,000,000. This time, the union negotiators, Jack Donlan and football player Gene Upshaw have had experience in collective bargaining prior to the strike, and worked well with each other. However, the negotiators had bosses, and the there were a lot of dissenting voices. This is not surprising considering that there was one representative from each of the 28 teams, forming them union’s labor policy making team called the Management Council led by executive director Jack Donlan and another six delegates to form the Council Executive Committee. It was Donlan’s responsibility to promote cohesion in the demands of the union as well as ensure that negotiations keep to limits set by the Council members.
Some of the union demands were as follows:
- minimum salaries
- severance pay
- right to free agency
- elimination of artificial turf (Staudohar, 1988)
A football player’s professional life is short, less than four years before becoming too injured to continue playing. Therefore, it is logical that they try to get as much money as they are able to during their productive seasons. However, the 1987 strike did not really emphasize this. What was emphasized by the players who were interviewed and in the subsequent negotiations of union leaders was the right to free agency.
Free agency is about a professional player’s right to negotiate with any number of teams for the sale of their services once their contract expires provided they had fulfilled some conditions of tenure. There are five categories of free agency: unrestricted (UFA); restricted (RFA); exclusive-rights (EFA); franchise (FFA); and transitional (TFA). In UFA, a player with at least four years under his belt can change teams without restrictions. RFA dictates that a player of at least three years standing can negotiate for his transfer to another team, but his previous team has the right to match the other team’s offer and retain rights to the player if they do so.
If the previous team declines to match the offer, the new team will have to give compensation to the previous team in the form of draft picks. EFA players have less than three years with the league and his team will have to make an offer before the NFL deadline or the player becomes a UFA player.
A player designated as FFA is a UFA player for whom a new team, if the previous team declines to match the offer, must remit compensation to the previous team. The TFA player receive an offer from the previous team for minimum higher amount based on last salary i.e. 120% of salary and the previous team has seven days to make the offer. If the offer is not made, the player can sign on with the new team which does not need to compensate the previous team. (“Free agency definitions & explanations,” 2004)
The strike was announced on September 22, 1987 and almost immediately, things started to go awry. Because Upshaw as one of the union negotiators was not always present during the bargaining for the new contract, NFL officials complained to the National Labor Relations Board that this was a deliberate ploy to justify a strike due to non-progression in the talks, and claimed bad faith. This strengthened the position of the team owners, and they decided to outface the strikers by bringing in replacement players to play in their stead. The season’s games continued as planned.
Replacement players, also referred to as “scabs” are usually former college football players, or those players who got cut during the draft. This was an unprecedented move by the NFL team owners and was considered a “dirty” trick. (Farsnworth, 2002) However, the public relations of the NFL got busy in representing the NFL as being in the right, and the fact that by the first week of the strike major players crossed the picket line seemed to reinforce this impression.
The break in solidarity, and the failure of union leaders to get the team owners to comply with their terms, led to the ending of the strike on October 15, 1987. The same day, the NFLPA filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL team owners, an arena in which they have been more successful before, much more than on the picket line. Eventually, though the 1987 suit was dismissed, another lawsuit filed in 1989 which was more successful and the courts ruled in favor of the players. After going back to negotiations, the team owners agreed to permit free agency with certain conditions based on a player’s tenure on a particular team. (“National Football League Players Association,” 2007)
The NFL strikes of 1982 and 1987 were interesting because it illustrated how a weak union can do as much damage or even more than no union at all. The NFL owners understood this, which is why they maintained the NFLPA as the official representation of the NFL players even after numerous attempts at strikes and antitrust lawsuits. (Staudohar, 1988)
From the beginning, the NFLPA was considered of no account by the team owners, who did not even bother to show up for meetings in the early days. The only recourse that seemed to work was to enlist the help of the judicial system in the form of antitrust lawsuits.
The aim of the 1982 strike was primarily to get a piece of the television revenues, and the union leaders believed they were in a position of strength with the USFL soon to provide competition to the NFL. Apparently, they overestimated their strength as the NFL stonewalled them and simply cut the season to nine games until the NFLPA ended the strike.
In the end, their desire for higher salaries for the players was realized through the normal course of events and as a result of market forces. There was no real rhyme or reason for the 1982 strike. It was ultimately the players who suffered, who went 57 days without pay or health coverage. Moreover, the failure of the NFLPA to produce results only hurt their prestige and credibility as effective negotiators in the eyes of the team owners as well as the union members.
The incredible thing is history repeated itself in 1987. The same kind of circumstances prevailed, perhaps slightly different in details but the same in context, with one important exception. What were the same? The aim was to get a piece of the television revenues. The union leaders thought they were in a position of strength with the recent arbitration decision against baseball team owners who were accused of collusion to control player salaries by halting all signing of free agents filed by the Major League Baseball Players Association. This is even shakier ground than the USFL scenario.
At the very least, the USFL was a reasonable proposition because it is based on market forces. The collusion decision against baseball team owners could not reasonably be used against football team owners because free agent signing is so infrequent that collusion would be difficult to prove. The team leaders had nothing to lose in stonewalling the players’ union.
As in 1982, the union failed to adequately prepare for the 1987 strike in terms of financial support for the players. Players were once again bereft of their pay and benefits, and the union had no Striker’s funds to dip into for emergencies. It is no wonder that the former solidarity in 1982 melted in the first week of the 1987 strike. The players, at least, had learned the first time around.
One important difference is the supposed main aim of the strike: the granting of free agency to players. The tragic thing about this is that as early as 1975, it could have been theirs for the asking with no need to go on a strike at all.
At the time of the 1987 strike, the standard in the NFL for player exchange was based on the Rozelle Rule on free agency, named after NFL Commissioner Peter Rozelle. The rule allowed the NFL commissioner to dictate what kind of compensation the new team of a newly-transferred player would have to award the player’s new team. This put acquiring teams at a disadvantage and only four players were traded prior to 1987.
The Rozelle Rule was deemed unreasonable restraint under the Sherman Antitrust Act when the Baltimore Colts’ John Mackey filed a complaint to the Federal courts. This was a golden opportunity for players to become free agents at the end of their contracts because the constraints to trading had been lifted. Incredibly, however, the NFLPA signed away this advantage by signing an agreement with the NFL team owners in 1977 which stipulated compensation payments for signing free agents. This provision was not challenged in the 1982 contract and remained intact.
The whole point of the 1987 strike was supposedly to gain the right to free agency which had already been signed away by the union 10 years ago. It is the epitome of irony that even with the strike they failed to regain that which they had foolishly lost themselves. Worse yet, public opinion during the 1987 strike tended to favor the side of the owners, perhaps because the players themselves seemed unhappy about the whole idea themselves. The television stations also signified disapproval by covering the replacement games, which had come to be known as Replacement Sunday, as if they were the regular games.
A consequence of the 1987 strike that is still a matter of interest is the use of replacements in the three weeks of the strike. By most accounts from players who were there, no real animosity was directed at the replacement players, or “scabs” themselves, but it was still considered “unthinkable” of the team owners to make use of the tactic to undermine the striking players. Some players recall how they were pulled out from construction jobs and stockbroker interviews in “scavenger hunts” to fill the positions in the 22-player game.
For many, it was an opportunity to play professional football that was too good to be missed. Some stayed on even after the strike ended, and in the case of former college football player Tim Burnham, who played left tackle on the Seahawks replacement team, he was invited to train for the summer. For the “real” players, all rancor ended when the picket line was pulled down (Farsnworth, 2002).
From a historical perspective, it seems clear that both strikes should not have happened. The pros and cons were not properly evaluated and it appeared that the NFLPA made a habit of going off half-cocked when it came to striking. The tragedy of such miscalculations is that it is the players who suffer, both immediately i.e. loss of income during strikes and in the long term i.e. loss of collective bargaining advantage.
Today, football players get impressive salaries and have the right to free agency. They have sign-up bonuses, health benefits and insurance, and all the trappings of fame and glory. Undeniably, some concessions can be directly linked to union efforts on behalf of the players. The strikes of 1982 and 1987, however, were not among the NFLPA’s most shining moments.
Farnsworth, C. (2002, October 4) NFL crossed the line on Replacement Sunday. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved July 8, 2007 from http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/football/89817_replace04.shtml
Forbes, G. (2001, June 8) ’82 strike changed salary dealings forever. USA Today. Retrieved July 8, 2007 from http://www.usatoday.com/sports/comment/forbes/2001-06-08-forbes.htm
Free agency definitions and explanations (2004, March 1) Detroit Lions. Retrieved July 7, 2007 from http://www.detroitlions.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=332893
National Football League Players Association. (2007, June 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:16, July 8, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=National_Football_League_Players_Association&oldid=139999742
Staudohar, P. (1988, August) The football strike of 1987: the question of free agency. Monthly Labor Review Online, vol 111, no. 8. Retrieved July 8, 2007 from http://stats.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1988/08/rpt1full.pdf