1987, the NFL Players Association goes on StrikeReturn to Shannon's Seahawk home page
1987 in review
Prior to the start of the season the Seahawks win a lottery for the right to pick LB Brian Bosworth in the supplemental draft.
After the regulars split their first 2 games the Seahawks scabs play decent football winning 2 of 3.
When the regulars returned the Seahawks played solid football winning 4 of their first 5 games to sit in strong playoff position with a 7-3 record.
the Seahawks would struggle down the stretch winning just 2 of their
final 3 games. Non the less their 9-6 record was still good enough for a
Wild Card berth, as WR Steve Largent made history again by breaking the
record of career receptions.
In the Wild Card Game the Seahawks would battle the Oilers back and forth all day before falling in overtime 23-20 in Houston.
"Seattle is football crazy. Curt Warner, Steve Largent, and Brian Bosworth get the headlines most of the time up there. The Seahawks won't give out the jersey #12 to any of their players because it is reserved for the fans, 'the twelfth man' on their team. Every week a new Seahawk Song is made and sent to the radio stations in the area where it gets lots of air time. The Seahawks still haven't come through with much success, but they fill the ugly Kingdome every weekend with some of the loudest fans around." -- 1988, L. Dean Oliver
football strike of 1987: the question of free agency
By Paul D. Staudohar
The 24-day strike by National Football
League players in 1987 was one of the most interesting in recent years.
The strike may have a significant impact on the future of not only
football but other professional team sports. What caused the strike? Could
it have been avoided? How did the dynamics of the strike affect the
positions of the parties in their continuing negotiations? Can the
players' union bounce back from its defeat at the bargaining table?
The 1987 strike was a product of the
past. As early as 1956, when the National Football League Players'
Association was formed, the players were contemplating a strike against
the owners. Expenses incurred during training camps were not compensated
by owners, and players decided to strike the last preseason game between
the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Colts. When the Redskins' owner,
George Preston Marshall, said he would go ahead with the game without the
strikers, the players capitulated and took the field. This scenario was to
be repeated, with some variation, over the next several years.
In the fall of 1968, the players
struck training camps over a variety of money and other issues. The NFL
owners countered with a lockout of the training camps, and the dispute
ended in compromise without much apparent enmity. Essentially, the same
situation occurred in 1970, 1974, and 1975, During each of these training
camp strikes the players' initial optimism gave way to frustration, as the
owners held their ground or gave up little. The 42-day strike in 1974 was
particularly discouraging for the union because solidarity crumbled with
one-fourth of the veteran players crossing the picket lines. This strike
marked the debut of Edward Garvey as the union's executive director.
Garvey, a lawyer who had formerly
worked for the law firm representing the union, expressed determination to
obtain concessions from the owners in 1982. A new television agreement had
increased each owner's annual share of television revenue from $5.8
million to $14.2 million, and the players wanted a bigger share as well.
Also, the United States Football League (USFL) was going to start play in
the spring of 1983, which would create new employment opportunities for
NFL players. The timing looked good for a generous settlement for the
players' association, if it could maintain solidarity.
The 1982 strike, which lasted 57 days,
produced unexpectedly good player solidarity but few gains for the
players. Although average player salaries in the NFL rose from $90,000 in
1982 to $230,000 in 1987, most of this increase was due to opportunities
for players to jump to USFL clubs for a higher salary or to be paid more
by their NFL clubs to stay. A number of issues-free agency, pensions,
severance pay, and artificial turf- remained in dispute. In 1987, the new
television agreement was paying each owner $17 million annually, inspiring
a new struggle between players and owners over revenues.
The chief protagonists in the 1987
negotiations were Jack Donlan, a former negotiator for National Airlines,
and Gene Upshaw, Football Hall of Fame guard for the Oakland Raiders.
Neither Donlan nor Upshaw was new to football negotiations. Donlan,
executive director of the NFL Management Council, had represented the
owners in 1982. Upshaw, who succeeded Garvey as executive director in
1983, had been Garvey's chief assistant in the 1982 talks. In the years
prior to the 1987 negotiations, Donlan and Upshaw became acquainted and
were on friendly terms. This was quite a contrast from the apparent
acrimony between Donlan and Garvey that tainted the 1982 talks. So it
looked like a fresh start was possible.
But chief negotiators do not operate
on their own. An unusual and particularly troublesome aspect of collective
bargaining in sports is that negotiating within the organization presents
as many (or perhaps even more) problems as negotiating with the adversary.
This so-called "intraorganizational bargaining" is crucial in
football because there are 28 teams joined together in negotiations, each
with separate ownership.
The NFL Management Council, consisting
of one member ftom each of the 28 clubs, determines the league's Labor
policy. The Management Council is supervised and coordinated by its
Council Executive Committee. The six-member committee consisted of Hugh
Culverhouse of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (chairman), Tex Schramm of the
Dallas Cowboys, Joe Robbie of the Miami Dolphins, Michael Brown of the
Cincinnati Bengals, Charles Sullivan of the New England Patriots, and Dan
Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is this group that supervises Donlan.
On the union side, each of the 28
teams has a player representative who handles union business with
individual players. As chief negotiator for the union, the executive
director, Upshaw, maintains close contact with the player representatives
to remain up-to-date on member views. He also deals with the policymaking
board for the players, a nine-member executive committee headed in 1987 by
Marvin Powell. Complicating the executive director's role further is that
he deals with other union executives, who have strong views. As is true of
most strikes, in a football strike a key to winning is how well the owners
and players are able to maintain solidarity.
The disputes which the talks centered
on were those brought forth by the players' association. To understand
these disputes, it is helpful to look at the conditions that caused them.
Football players have short and risky careers that last an average of 3.2
years, the shortest in professional team sports. Approximately half of the
veteran players wind up with some kind of permanent disability, usually to
the knee or back, that can cause considerable pain throughout their lives.
The NFL veteran is believed to have a life expectancy of about 55 years,
far less than the average of 70 years for all American males.'
While the average player salary in
1987 was $230,000, the median salary was closer to $170,000. 2 The average
salary is deceptive because a few very highly paid players pulled it up.
It is therefore not surprising that
players seek to maximize their incomes during such short careers. Although
the players' association does not represent players in individual salary
negotiations, there are several money issues-for example, minimum salaries
and severance pay-that concern the union. In addition, there are other
issues that can lead to higher salaries, such as free agency, and health
issues that can reduce injuries and lead to longer careers, such as
elimination of artificial turf Exhibit I shows the key issues in dispute
and the parties' positions at the time of the strike.
The old 5-year agreement expired on
August 31, 1987. Even before this, there were several reasons to expect
negotiations to falter and end in a strike. For one thing, the union has
always struck in formal negotiations with the owners. Thus, a strike
should have been considered likely. Secondly, there had been a strike in
baseball in 1985. Although this strike lasted only 2 days, there is a
certain imitative quality about the NFL players' association in following
its baseball brethren. The long football strike of 1982 followed the long
baseball strike of 1981. In addition, strike incidence is far higher under
new leaders, and Upshaw was the new executive director of the players'
association. Also, the USFL had discontinued operation the year before.
Had the USFL kept playing, NFL owners probably would not have allowed a
strike for fear of losing players and public support to the rival league.
Perhaps most important were the perceived inequities by the players -that
they were not paid what they were worth, while the owners reaped large
profits from the game.
Despite these ominous portents, a
strike seemed unlikely. While important issues were on the table, there
just didn't appear to be anything worth striking over. There had been too
much suffering in 1982 and the level of acrimony in 1987 was down.
Moreover, instead of bargaining in one place the negotiations moved
around, with sessions in
What became disquieting to observers,
despite all the optimism about a strike-free settlement, was the lack of
progress in negotiations. It is customary for negotiations to start well
before the expiration of the agreement. The parties in football had
several negotiating sessions in the early summer, but progress was
negligible and it seemed that the sides were not going to enter serious
discussions until late August. By this time, though, the contract had
almost expired and the regular season was ready to start. By mid-September
strike talk began to circulate. At this point, the union may have been
well advised to make major concessions because it had never won a battle
with the owners outside of court and there was little reason to expect it
would do so in 1987 by striking.
Nevertheless, the players' association
went forward with a vote to strike on September 22. Both Donlan and Upshaw
appeared before television viewers to plead their case. At this time
Donlan observed that Upshaw had not been to the bargaining table in two
weeks and was instead out conferring with the players. The owners charged
that the players were not bargaining in good faith and filed a complaint
with the National Labor Relations Board, This pointed out the dilemma
Upshaw was in. He had to try to maintain solidarity among the players by
making personal appearances around the country, but in so doing had to
sacrifice his duties as a negotiator with management. The prolonged
absence by Upshaw may have allowed the owners to stiffen their negotiating
position. When the union refused to accept a request by the owners to
extend the strike deadline by 30 days, the strike became inevitable.
The owners' revised strategy seemed
simple: (1) stonewall in negotiations, (2) use the NFL'S public relations
program to persuade the fans of the rightness of their position, and (3)
divide and frustrate the players by proceeding with the regular schedule
This strategy, a throwback to the
early 20th century, was calculated to wear down the union. The owners were
taking a long-term view. This approach was effective because unlike 1982,
the games went on. This, coupled with the breakdown in player solidarity,
probably won the strike for the owners. But there was a bargaining issue
that also contributed to the union's failure: free agency.
Perhaps the most important
Labor-management dispute in professional sports is free agency. This issue
is crucial because it gives players an opportunity to sell their services
to several teams rather than only one. Players in baseball and basketball
have reaped economic gains from free agency (average salaries in the
sports are $410,000 and $500,000, respectively), Without significant free
agency opportunities, football players could not obtain their free market
value which they perceived to be higher than their current salaries
because of the profits made by owners and high salaries earned by other
Prior to 1976, football exercised what
was called the "Rozelle Rule" on free agency. This rule allowed
NFL Commissioner Peter Rozelle to award compensation (players, draft
choices, money) to a player's former team when he signed a contract with a
new team. From 1963 to 1975, only four NFL players played out their
options and signed as free agents with other clubs. Thus, the Rozelle Rule
effectively chilled the market for free agents. In December 1975, however,
the players' association won the Mackey case, filed on behalf of John
Mackey of the Baltimore Colts. In this case, the Federal courts ruled that
the Rozelle Rule was an unreasonable restraint of trade under the Sherman
Antitrust Act of 1890, because it acted as a deterrent to player movement
in the NFL.
With the decision in Mackey, NFL
players could become free agents by playing out their option with the
barrier of a compensation penalty to their team no longer in the way.
However, in 1977, the union bargained away the rights won in the courtroom
and agreed to a new method of determining compensation payments for
signing free agents. Under this provision, which was slightly modified in
the 1982 contract, only one free agent, Norm Thompson of the St. Louis
Cardinals, signed with another club.
The rationale for negotiating away the
free agency won in court is that free agency may not be as meaningful in
football as it is in other sports. The players gained increased pension
and other benefits for giving up free agency, and felt it was a wise
tradeoff. Why don't football players receive higher salaries under free
agency? One reason is that a single player doesn't make that much
difference on a team. Football is played with 22 players 11 on offense and
11 on defense. By contrast, one player can have a big impact on a
five-person basketball team, but is far less important in football.
Second, the NFL owners already operate in stadiums that typically average
95 percent of capacity, so they would not be able to sell many more
tickets to justify acquiring a star free agent player. Also, there are
fewer games played in football than in other team sports. More important,
most teams fill their stadiums regardless of their won-lost record. Third,
because football careers are much shorter, there are fewer opportunities
for players to become free agents. Finally, the owners proved determined
not to fundamentally change the free agency system.
Supposing the players were able to
achieve free agency, there may not be much they could make of it because
the football owners would not likely fall victim to a bidding game for
reasons stated above. It is true that the baseball owners from 1976 to
1984 spent millions on free agents. When they stopped signing free agents
in 1985 and 1986, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a
grievance charging the owners with collusion. Arbitrator Tom Roberts
agreed with the union.
Ironically, the Roberts' decision came
out on September 22, the same day the players' association announced its
intention to strike. The union indicated that the baseball decision
reinforced its position. The football owners, however, had never signed
free agents to any significant degree, thus making guilt of collusion more
difficult to prove.
It is against this backdrop that the
players' association pushed so hard for free agency. The owners agreed to
change the current system so that a team would owe a first-round draft
pick if it signed a player earning $300,000 or more, up from $140,000.
This would have made it easier for some players to change teams. The
owners also offered to raise the salary level at which teams could keep
players by matching competitive bids under a right of first refusal, which
would also have helped player mobility. The union dropped the demand for
unlimited free agency without compensation for all players to only those
players with 4 years' experience. Despite these concessions the parties
remained far apart on free agency. Meanwhile, doubts were expressed by
some of the striking players as to whether free agency was worth the
sacrifices the strike entailed.
While making small concessions on free
agency, the owners made an interesting offer to establish a bonus and
salary scale for first-year players. (It should be recalled that it was
the players' association that sought a wage scale for all players during
the 1982 strike.) Salaries would be determined by the players' ranking in
the NFL draft. For instance, rookie salaries would be set at $60,000 plus
uniform college draft bonuses of from $500,000 for the first pick,
$400,000 for the second pick, on down to $5,000 for the last player
drafted. This offer was a response to veteran player complaints that
rookies were making more money than they were. Money saved by the salary
scale would be used to provide greater rewards for veterans. Another
purported attraction of this proposal is that rookies would no longer need
agents to represent them, which would eliminate illegal payments by agents
to entice college students to sign with them. On the other hand, a salary
scale for rookies might provide owners with an economic incentive to cut
The owners were far better prepared
for a strike than the players. About two-thirds of the teams signed
replacement players who promised to continue the season in the event of a
strike. Just two weeks prior to the start of the season there had been 100
players on each NFL team's training camp roster; Eager to play in the NFL,
if only for a short time, they gladly took the $1,000 proffered by the
owners for standing by as potential replacements.
Although the players should have
realized from the 1982 experience that they needed to take steps to
insulate themselves from the impact of a strike, not much was done. There
was no union strike fund from which to draw benefits. No line of credit
was available for player loans. As a member of the executive council of
the AFL-CIO, Upshaw was able to get support from organized Labor in NFL
cities. This support hurt the owners by reducing attendance at games, and
by the embarrassment of AFLCIO picketing, but did nothing to alleviate the
players' financial plight.
Approximately 60 percent of income in
the NFL comes from television and 40 percent from gate receipts. In the
first week of the strike games, television ratings were down 3 to 4 rating
points from the usual network average of 15. Most observers were surprised
that the ratings were that high. Many viewers tuned in to the games out of
curiosity. Interest declined, however, and television ratings dropped
further as the strike continued. Gate receipts, on the other hand, went in
the opposite direction. An average of 17,000 fans, 28 percent of usual,
attended the first week of the strike games. Attendance climbed to 25,000
in the second week.
What was the impact on players and
owners? The strikers lost an average of $15,000 per game, and
approximately $80 million altogether. All teams refunded monies to fans
who had purchased tickets but did not attend strike games. Although gate
receipts and television ratings were down, the owners saved on salaries by
paying the replacement players comparatively little. The average owner's
profit per game actually rose from $800,000 before the strike to $921,000
during the strike. This profit was temporary, however, because the league
has to refund $60 million to the networks over the next two seasons for
the one missed weekend of play, the reduced ratings, and the decline in
The strike also affected public
opinion of the union. A poll by ESPN, a cable television network, found
that fans favored the owners over the players by about 3 to l.' Although
the games were played mostly with unknown players, they had the appearance
of major league football. NFL Officials crossed the picket lines to
referee games, and the regular television announcers were on hand to
provide commentary. Although many of these announcers are former players,
their sentiments appeared to be on the side of the owners.
Also harming the union position was
the erosion of player solidarity. In the first week of the strike several
veteran players crossed picket lines. The number of defectors increased as
the strike continued. Although about 84 percent of the 1,585 regular
players stayed out for the duration, at the time the strike was called off
it looked like many players would be returning. The owners, on the other
hand, maintained their solidarity. The NFL Management Council spoke with a
unified voice and no owners negotiated separately.
The strike ends
On the 20th day of the strike Upshaw
appeared on television during the Monday Night Football game to propose an
end to the strike. This was a desperate effort by the union to settle
because players on a majority of teams were poised to return to work if
the strike wasn't settled before the upcoming weekend of October 18. The
executive director's proposal contained three parts: (1) reinstatement of
all strikers for the rest of the season, including protection of all
player representatives and alternative player representatives, (2) the
1982 collective bargaining agreement would remain in effect, and (3) all
current bargaining issues would be submitted to mediation for 6 weeks, and
after that, all remaining unsettled issues would be submitted to
The owners indicated a willingness to
protect the player representatives, submit to mediation, and continue the
1982 agreement, but guaranteed the strikers' salaries for only two games
and rejected arbitration. Historically, the owners have been wary of
arbitration. Arbitration is commonly used in football for grievances and
injury disputes, but the owners have never allowed arbitration of
provisions that go into a collective bargaining agreement. This points up
one of the reasons why arbitration of interests disputes is rare
throughout American industry. In negotiations, one of the parties
typically has a position of strength. That party would rather go to the
bargaining table than allow an arbitrator to decide its fate.
Faced with the owners' rejection of
its proposal, the union decided to end the strike on October 15. It is
customary when a strike is over for management to welcome back the
strikers and get on with business as usual. But the owners surprised the
returnees. The owners had established October 14 as the deadline for
players to return to be eligible for play in that weekend's games. Because
the players ended the strike a day late the owners refused to allow them
to play on October 18 and 19. This seemed a violation of trust to some
players, and the union protested the legality of the action with the NLRB.
However, the owners publicly reasoned that the players were out of
condition and would risk injury. Additional motivation for the action may
have been that the union had again chosen to use a weapon that had proved
menacing to the owners in the past: an antitrust suit.
The lawsuit, filed the same day the
strike ended, challenges the college draft, restraints on free agency, and
other practices the union alleges are unfavorable to competition in the
football Labor market. Also, the union filed an unfair Labor practice
charge with the NLRB, contending that the owners failed to bargain in good
faith. The union's lawsuit emulates one filed earlier in the month by the
players' union in the National Basketball Association on antitrust
issues.' For the players' association, the suit represents an alternative
to its frustrated attempts at collective bargaining as well as a way of
saving face after the strike.
With the flurry of litigation, it will
probably be a long time before everything is resolved. In December 1987,
the NLRB'S general counsel issued a complaint against the NFL, finding
that striking players were discriminated against when they were not
allowed to return for the games on October 18 and 19. The owners appealed
this complaint with the NLRB, but if it is upheld it could cost them as
much as $25 million in back pay.
A priority with the union in the
antitrust suit was to get free agency for players whose individual
contracts with their clubs have expired. Judge David Doty, hearing the
case in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, refused the union's initial
request for an injunction to release the players, because he was waiting
for an NLRB ruling on good faith bargaining. Meanwhile, ruled Judge Doty,
the 1982 agreement would remain in effect. When the NLRB dismissed the
owners' charge that the union had failed to bargain in good faith, Judge
Doty found that an impasse existed. This finding allowed for the chance
that approximately 280 players without contracts would be declared free
agents when the judge finally ruled on the union's injunction request in
mid-July, just before the opening of training camps for the 1988 season.
However, Judge Doty denied the injunctive relief indicating that the
potential change of teams by so many players could have had a devastating
effect on the competitive balance of the NFL. The judge urged the parties
to return to the bargaining table. Nevertheless, if the bargaining
stalemate continues, a decision on the antitrust dispute will eventually
be reached by Judge Doty.
In retrospect, there was no real
question about who would win the 1987 strike. The players struck
reluctantly, without a significant issue to rally behind. When the union
leaders were asked to identify their big issue they named free agency, for
which few players had much enthusiasm. By striking when so many players
preferred not to, the union may have harmed itself As a result of the
strike the players' association lost its dues check-off privilege. So
rather than having the clubs automatically deduct the $2,400 in union
dues, the union has the difficult task of collecting the monies from
disgruntled players. But as incensed as some players may be with their
union, they are also bitter toward the owners, especially for not letting
them play after they had capitulated.
It seems unlikely that the union will
die because the owners do not want this to happen. They have expressed
preference for some kind of union, albeit a weak one, to no union at all.
Were the union to die, the courts and Congress might take action against
the owners, who need a collective bargaining agreement to continue to use
the waiver system, the player draft, and other practices.
The bottom line on the strike may be
that the owners and players will have to put aside their past warfare and
try to reach agreement on issues like pensions, severance pay, and
artificial turf These issues are not only important to the players but
their costs can be estimated readily. Unless the owners and players work
out their problems themselves, the government may intervene in a manner
that would be in neither party's interests. Unless a negotiated settlement
is reached, the 1987 strike could become just the first step of the
longest yard in NFL Labor relations.
COPYRIGHT 1988 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics