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The summer of change

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Mike Beacom
Contributing writer

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By Mike Beacom

The long, black car came to a stop at the opposite end of the football field, away from where the Washington Redskins were running through a series of player-organized drills. The driver stepped out of the car and opened the door for someone many of the players did not recognize at first. He was a shell of the man who had coached them the year before, and in little more than a month he'd be dead of colon cancer. Vince Lombardi could only stand to watch his former team practice for a minute before escaping back into the car where he wept. As his wife, Marie, shared with the players later, Lombardi was moved to tears because he believed the discipline he'd been trying to instill in the men had taken hold. They were a unit now, no longer a group of individuals.

It was the end of an era for professional football. There would be no more men like Lombardi, and the game Lombardi knew would never be the same after that summer of 1970. Pro football's two rival leagues were finally ready to merge into one league of two conferences, and the stronghold management had maintained over employment for the league's first half-century would be challenged seriously for the first time. …

As NFL players and owners prepare for a third month of the lockout, it seems clear the balance of power is well proportioned. Player salaries account for an estimated 59 percent of the league's annual operating budget, while the vast majority of NFL franchises have a net worth of more than $1 billion, according to Forbes. Both sides are holding firm at the moment — the players on the strength of their iron-clad union and Minnesota judge Susan Nelson's ruling, and the owners thanks to an expected $5 billion in promised network television dollars whether the season is played or not.

Their squabbling aside, times are good for both parties, all things considered.

The history between NFL labor and management was once a lopsided story. Up through the 1960s, players were instructed not to share the terms of their contract with other players, and each man was considered the property of the organization that first secured his rights until that team no longer had a need for him. It was the slavery Curt Flood and Marvin Miller spoke of while trying to crack Major League Baseball's reserve clause, only pro football's system was far more unjust. The life of an NFL player was a fraction of that of a professional baseball player, and the aftereffects of a career in football were far more severe. And even after television and the Super Bowl had helped the NFL to reach unimagined heights, the men whose blood was being shed on fields throughout the Midwest and East Coast had no plan to protect their financial futures or long-term health needs, nor was there a structure in place for the men to argue for one. Meanwhile, NFL owners reaped all the rewards, in large part because they proved much better at playing politics and won every labor dispute by a blowout.

NFL players first organized as an Association in 1956, and three years later negotiated the league's first pension plan (albeit not a very good one). In 1968, the Association went on strike for the first time, but the dispute was brief and was settled before the start of training camp.

Two years later the players were again back at the bargaining table, this time faced with the dubious task of trying to negotiate a better pension plan and benefits while trying to blend both NFL and AFL Player Associations into one.

Seven soldiers (and a lawyer named Garvey)

Serving as a player representative in the 1960s and early 1970s was a potential death sentence. There was no protection from teams bullying or cutting those players that stood on the front lines. Say the wrong thing to management and you were bound to get bounced throughout the league, possibly blacklisted from pro football altogether. Within 12 months of the 1968 strike, six team representatives had been traded, sold or cut. At one Players Association election, the first five nominees declined the honor.

"That was the general practice," says Kermit Alexander, who became a casualty when San Francisco traded him to the Rams prior to the 1970 season. In an attempt to discourage teams from this, the Association began encouraging star players to step forward with the assumption that management would be far less likely to cut or trade one of its most talented players. "It turns out they didn't care," Alexander says. "They did it to stars like they did it to everybody else."

Alexander was one player who had witnessed enough. When the NFL Players Association merged with the AFL Players Association prior to the 1970 season, Alexander was named to a seven-member Executive Committee along with fellow NFL at-large representative Pat Richter (Washington), AFL at-large representatives Nick Buoniconti (Miami) and Tom Keating (Oakland), vice presidents Ken Bowman (Green Bay) and Ernie Wright (Cincinnati), and president John Mackey (Baltimore).

Mackey came into power thanks to a deal he struck with AFL leader Jack Kemp. If the Association would agree to have Kemp's good friend, Alan Miller, serve as general counsel, Kemp would guarantee Mackey that the AFL players would vote him president.

Kemp had his motives. Mackey was a more moderate pick than the NFL's Association president at the time, Ed Meador. Besides, as the Association's other labor lawyer, Ed Garvey, put it, "Kemp's politics and philosophy of government made him a welcome person to the NFL owners and the commissioner. Kemp was a believer that the Association should be exactly that — not a union but an association." Miller operated on the same wavelength.

"It was a concession on our part," Bowman says. "There was a general feeling that the old league, the National Football League, now the National Football Conference, had a stronger Association. Kemp's group was viewed as, 'Gee, what are you guys going to give us.' " Whether that's a fair assessment is difficult to say, but midway through the 1970 proceedings Miller's views on organized labor meant very little; his voice had been drowned out by Garvey, a spirited young lawyer who later would serve as the Association's Executive Director from 1971-83.

Some would say the left can't lean far enough for Garvey, who went to work for Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968 while finishing up a law degree at the University of Wisconsin. After Kennedy's assassination, Garvey joined Bronson La Follete's failed gubernatorial bid before searching for a firm that fit his liking. His mentor at Madison connected him with Minnesota firm Lindquist and Vennum, for whom he began work in late 1969. A year later, when the Players Association contracted with the firm to assist in the 1970 labor discussions, Garvey was asked by Leonard Lindquist to help in the proceedings. Lindquist had never been to a pro football game in his life. Laughs Garvey, "I was selected, in part, because I knew the shape of a football."

Garvey's knowledge of the game did not concern the players much (although it should be noted that he did play football in high school). Instead, they were immediately taken by his passion and wit. "Quick with a phrase," Bowman describes. "On one occasion, he said Pete Rozelle was ethically and morally bankrupt. He had some great lines."

Owners refused to acknowledge Garvey at the table. During one mediation session in Philadelphia, Garvey addressed Cowboys president Tex Schramm, who turned to Mackey and said, 'We're going to talk to you, John. We're not going to talk to anybody else, because we're trying to make a deal.' Undaunted, Mackey replied, 'Well, he's our guy, so you better talk to him.'

If the owners thought they'd have it any easier dealing with Mackey, the men sorely underestimated the legendary Colts player. He might not have had a law degree like Bowman and Richter, but Mackey had a great deal of fight in him, and he'd need every ounce of it that summer.

A worthy opponent

Rozelle was the perfect politician. It's difficult to believe today, when Roger Goodell is so clearly identified as a management guy, but in 1970 Rozelle had successfully convinced pro football outsiders that he was the impartial voice of reason between players and management. The media loved him. He was, after all, the guy who had helped pro football to explode in the age of television, and the man who had restored peace after a decade-long war between his NFL and the AFL. "All of the sportswriters had this idea that Pete Rozelle walked on water," Alexander says. "There was this conception that he walked the tough line between management and players. No such thing. He was clearly in management's pocket, just like Goodell is."

Every player understood this. Rozelle was hired by management, paid for by management, and sat on management's side of the table during labor discussions. The players would have liked for him to serve both sides; it just wasn't the reality. Recalls Richter, "We even offered at one time to pay half his salary. We said, 'Well, if he truly is the commissioner for everyone, let us pay half his salary.' That didn't fly."

A good guy in public, Rozelle sometimes resorted to cheap tricks behind closed doors. He spoke of progress when addressing reporters, then helped the owners orchestrate delays during the months leading up to the start of the season in an attempt to drain the Association's resources and weaken their foundation. In a 1980 Sports Illustrated article, Mackey recalled one occasion when Rozelle demanded the NFLPA president sign the Collective Bargaining Agreement "in a hurry because Vince Lombardi was going to die and that would upset the owners so much that they wouldn't negotiate anymore. So I was supposed to sign immediately. Incredible. I didn't give Vince Lombardi cancer." Lombardi probably wouldn't have cared; both Bowman and Richter admit Lombardi was cordial when it came to their duties as team representatives.

In another example of how Rozelle tried to manipulate the players, he invited Mackey and the Executive Committee to New York for a talk with owners. Rozelle asked that no lawyers be present for the meeting, but when the players arrived they were introduced to legendary labor lawyer Ted Kheel. Rozelle tried to convince Mackey that Kheel was merely there to educate the players and management on what lie ahead.

What the players hoped to accomplish at the meeting was to get recognition for the right to negotiate on the players' behalf. Rozelle then put the offer out: The NFL would recognize the NFL Players Association for collective bargaining if they were willing to waive in perpetuity the right to negotiate preseason pay. At that time Mackey excused himself to call Garvey. "He said, 'What do you think of that?' and I said, 'What do you think?' And Mackey said, 'I don't know what in perpetuity means, but it sounds like a long time,' " Garvey recalls.

Garvey admits the largest obstacle in 1970 was learning what was important to the membership. Without the structure of a union, there was no way to construct a list of demands. "If you go back as far as 1960, there really wasn't any way to know exactly what the players wanted because there hadn't been any preparation for collective bargaining — any surveys taken, or meetings held, or listing of priorities — frankly it was just an Association from the merger," says Garvey. "The guess was the players were primarily concerned about pension, insurance, disability benefits and things of that nature." The players were also growing tired of the Rozelle Rule, which all but froze player movement, but the players understood that battle would have to be fought another day.

NFL owners did their best to derail the Executive Committee's agenda. Rozelle encouraged Mackey to organize a brainstorming session in Chicago with the NFL's marquee players. Convinced the outcome would prove favorable to management, the NFL offered to cover all expenses. Recalls Garvey, "For the first part of the meeting it looked like the players were going to say, 'Let's not worry about a pension, let's go back to work.' But it got to Bart Starr, who said he was going to stay out as long as Ken Bowman told him to because he was the guy making it possible for Bart Starr to make more money than he deserved compared with Ken Bowman." With that, the NFL's elite sided with Starr.

"Suddenly, the NFL was faced with a problem," Garvey says. "They had no plan in mind, other than a collapse, because they were so confident the superstars would reject Mackey's call for a continuation of negotiations and a strike, if necessary."

In July, the owners briefly locked out the players, then lifted the lock prior to the start of camp. On July 30 the Association went on strike. Only a few players crossed over, the most notable being Baltimore Colts LB Mike Curtis. "Football is my profession, not negotiating contracts," Curtis told Sports Illustrated. He agreed with the players, just not their methods.

For Alexander, changing the way players viewed themselves was yet another obstacle in the Association's fight against management. "A segment of our guys thought an association was all we needed and 'union' was a dirty word. But that's because those guys didn't really appreciate that they were laborers. They were guys who were given a job and were expendable with no protection."

The strike started to crack before it began. A week before, Kansas City Chiefs players were granted permission by the Association to take part in the annual College All-Star Game in Chicago, and there had been unrest by many of the veterans about what missing part or all of the preseason would mean to their income.

On Aug. 3, the players agreed to go back to work. The players negotiated a four-year deal which offered a better pension plan that lowered the retirement age and included retro-contributions for benefit-eligible players who had played in the years 1959-69. The deal also increased the average salary for veterans and rookies, and provided dental benefits.

"They got what they wanted in 1970," Bowman says of management. "They got their four-year deal. They bought peace with some pocket change into the pension plan."

Actually, the pocket change was a $4.2 million contribution, but how that money has been handled is somewhat of a controversy to this day. The players' actuary calculated that the fund would produce an annual growth of six percent, generating estimated retirement-age payouts of roughly $100 per month per player for those who played in the 1970 season; $105 per month for those who played in 1971; $110 per month for those who played in 1972; and $120 per month for those who played in 1973. But the market yield through the years was far better than six percent, suggesting lost benefits for many retired players. Bowman and Richter served as the two player reps on the NFL Pension Board after the 1970 talks and both agree it was designed to be a lump sum contribution and not a defined benefit, meaning that retired players should have benefited from the growth of the fund. "We were negotiating dollars, not benefits," Richter says. "Somehow it moved in that direction."

Laughs Bowman, "The crazy thing about that is, I just got a notice from the NFL Pension Board and they're now saying it is under-funded for even the defined benefit. I guess they get the benefit of the market when it goes up, and the benefit of the market when it goes down, too." [Author's note: Commissioner Goodell recently released a statement which assured retired players that their pension money was secure.]

Willing to make the ultimate sacrifice

The deciding play of the 1970 season might have been Mackey's catch in Super Bowl V — a tipped pass that found its way into his hands before the 29-year-old raced the rest of the way for a 75-yard touchdown. What Mackey could not have known in his moment of triumph in Miami was that it would be his last proud moment on an NFL field. In 1969 Mackey had been voted the greatest tight end of the league's first 50 years, and had been selected to five Pro Bowls in his first seven seasons. But by 1971 he was all of a sudden over the hill and unwanted. His catch total dropped from 28 to 11 that season, and in '72 he was traded to the San Diego Chargers, for whom he recorded a career-low 110 yards and didn't score a single touchdown.

Injuries were credited with ending Mackey's career; Bowman claims he knows better.

"Here you have a guy who was the best tight end in the NFL for its first 50 years," Bowman says, "and only had eight or nine years in the league at that point, and all of a sudden he loses a step and gets traded to San Diego? John told me stories of what happened, of how they took the spirit away from him."

Despite his 331 catches, 38 touchdowns and 5,236 yards receiving, Mackey was not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame until almost two decades after he was ushered out of the league.

Adds Bowman, "If they can do it to John Mackey, they can do it to anyone."

And they did, say player representatives — the list of league-shortened careers too long to include in its entirety …

Knowing things were not going well for him in Washington prior to the 1971 season, Richter asked to be let go so that he could catch on with another team. "I was picked up by Dallas for a few weeks, but I think it was a surprise to Tex Schramm. When he saw I was there I think he said, 'Wait a minute, what the hell are you doing here?'" Richter was cut a short time later, ending his career in pro football.

Following the 1971 season, the Rams traded Kermit Alexander to Philadelphia. A year later, Oakland traded Keating to Pittsburgh. Like Mackey, Wright was shipped to San Diego for the '72 season — his last.

When the four-year deal the players had negotiated in 1970 expired, talks between management and the players intensified again. That summer, Bowman and 20 of his Packers teammates were arrested for picketing. Soon after, the league got rid of the center who had been one-half of the most famous block in pro football history. "They diagnosed a mystic back injury that strangely enough has never resurfaced again," Bowman laughs, "and I was waived through the league." Bowman finished his career with the Honolulu Hawaiians of the World Football League — his back in perfect playing shape, he says.

"Those players put their jobs on the line," Garvey says. "Guys like Ken Bowman, Pat Richter and John Mackey knew they were sacrificing their careers on behalf of other players, because they were dealing with NFL owners and the commissioner who play hardball.

"I'm sure, like all of us, they thought we would win. But they were willing to run that risk."

Patience, then progress

Victory? On the surface, the 1970 labor talks were another victory for management. The owners' delay tactics had worked, and it is largely believed that had the strike lasted any longer than four days the Association would have begun to crack. In terms of player rights and benefits, the Association accomplished very little; the pension was still grossly under-funded and few players believed they were fairly compensated.

But, with regard to future impact, the 1970 NFL labor talks might have been the most important single step in the history of the NFL players movement. The talks convinced the majority of players that an Association was no longer enough; more players were in favor of a union, and within a year they would be recognized as one. And albeit brief, the strike served as fair warning to management that change was on the horizon.

Years after he had filed his famous lawsuit challenging the Rozelle Rule, Mackey said of the 1970 talks: "They gave us what they wanted to give us, made us smile and say 'thank you.' But from that day forward, we decided to build a legitimate union. All efforts since then have been designed to develop our strength. Now we have the strength to take them on."

Reflects Alexander today, "It was analogous, in a lot of respects, to the civil rights movement — players trying to gain their rights, players to get recognition so that they can have a chance to get a fair wage for their labor."

It started with sacrifice. It started with seven men who were willing to put their necks on the line so that their future brethren could experience better working conditions. And much like that 1970 Redskins team that brought Lombardi to tears, NFL players for the first time began to act as a unit instead of a group of individuals.

Thanks to those efforts, the sacrifices today's NFL players speak of are trifling when compared with what Mackey and his compatriots faced.

Several months ago, when asked how NFL players would get by if locked out in 2011, Colts center and NFLPA representative Jeff Saturday said, "We've told them, 'Don't go out and buy a new boat. Don't go out and buy a new car. Pay off whatever debts you have.' These are things we've been learning from history."

From sacrificing careers to sacrificing life's luxuries … that's progress.

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