Game Off! — A brief history of NFL labor strife

As football fans across the country sweat out the days leading up to the March 3 expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, it’s worth pointing out that work stoppages are nothing new for the league. In fact they’ve occurred multiple times in its long history. Here’s a brief primer on the history of National Football League work stoppages.

1960s — Players weak, owners strong

Although the NFL/AFL merger was fait accompli by 1968, the players in the two leagues continued to be represented by separate associations. This left the NFLPA in a position of weakness when presenting demands related to pensions and paychecks, among other items, and they voted on July 3, 1968 to strike. In response the league essentially said, “You can’t strike on us! We’re locking you out!” The impasse lasted just 11 days and play was not affected.

1970s — Trouble brewing

Following a brief lockout by league owners, the players went on strike in July 1970. They returned after two days when owners threatened to cancel the entire season, and the two sides reached a four-year agreement. As in ’68, league play was not impacted.

In 1974 the NFLPA, now an actual union, attempted to begin negotiations with the league under the motto, “No freedom, no football.” The owners ignored the union entirely and a players’ strike began July 1. As the stoppage dragged on for more than a month it was clear the players were not making progress — ownership had not agreed to a single demand — so the union called off the strike on August 10 and opted to take their chances in court. In 1977 the NFL was found guilty of violating federal labor and antitrust laws, and they reached a settlement with the union. But from the NFLPA’s perspective, things got little better for them. Free agency, such as it was, was extremely limited and teams had no incentive to participate.

1980s — Shit gets real

Frustrated by a lack of player movement after the new free agent first refusal/compensation system was installed in 1977, the NFLPA in March 1982 drafted a proposal which called for the players to receive 55% of total league revenues. The league promptly told the players to go pound sand. In response, the players voted to go on strike after the second weekend of regular season play. The final game of that weekend, between the Packers and Giants, was played on September 20. The following day the strike began, and for the first time ever NFL contests were lost due to a work stoppage.

For 57 days there was no pro football in autumn for the first time since the league began. Well, almost. The NFLPA staged two ill-conceived “all-star” contests in October meant to curry public favor for their side. That didn’t work out so well, mainly because the game’s biggest stars were seemingly unwilling to risk injury with no health insurance. One notable exception was Washington Redskins Hall of Famer John Riggins, who said, “I guess I’ll do just about anything for money.” In any case, fewer than 9,000 fans showed up for the October 17 game in RFK Stadium, while a scant 5,331 attended the October 18 contest at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

Other than the so-called all-star games, the only sounds of pro football from late September to mid-November were press conferences and lawyers. A tentative settlement was finally reached on November 16, and play resumed on the 21st. Seven weeks of games were lost, and in response the NFL adopted a special playoff format dubbed the Super Bowl Tournament. Divisional standings were ignored, and instead the top eight teams from each conference made the playoffs. This was the first and only year (until 2010) that a team with a sub-.500 record made the playoffs (congrats, Cleveland and Detroit!).

While the players fell short of achieving what they hoped for with the strike, it did set the stage for another work stoppage just five years later. The key point of contention for the players entering ’87 was free agency. Although free agency technically still existed after the 1982 CBA was signed, only one player actually moved to a new team during the entire five-year period. The NFL, bolstered perhaps by the recent failure of the USFL, took a hard line and refused to accept the players’ demands. So the NFLPA voted to authorize a strike in the spring of 1987. It finally began on September 22, and for the second time in less than a decade NFL games were lost.

But this time the owners came prepared. Prior to the strike they had authorized the use of replacement players, or “scabs.” Although week 3 of the regular season was lost entirely, play resumed the next weekend with the replacements. Fans and players invented all manner of nicknames for these inferior squads, such as the San Francisco Phoney Niners, New Orleans Saint Elsewheres, Los Angeles Shams, Miami Dol-Finks, Seattle Sea-Scabs, and Chicago Spare Bears.

The willingness of TV networks and some fans to accept an inferior product, at least for a short time, was a major blow to the NFLPA, but really they were their own worst enemy. They had failed to properly establish a fund to cover lost player salaries, pushing many to return to work. 89 players crossed the picket line right away, with many others to follow. Faced with crumbling support from within their own ranks, the NFLPA voted on October 15 to return to work without a CBA, and filed an antitrust suit the same day. In retaliation, owners kept them out of the following weekend’s games.

1990s and beyond — A whole new ballgame

The NFLPA ultimately lost their antitrust battle in 1989, leading them to decertify themselves as a union in November. They reformed as an association dedicated to protecting players’ rights, rather than as a union acting as a single bargaining agent for the players. The association filed a lawsuit on behalf of several players (although New York Jets RB Freeman McNeil is most commonly associated with the case) challenging the league’s restrictive free agency rules, which it finally won in September 1992.

The NFLPA, once again certified as a union, entered into negotiations with the league and the result was a new CBA in May 1993. This CBA introduced real free agency for the players and a salary cap for the owners, a system that has remained largely intact since then and which many credit for the league’s explosive growth that decade. This agreement has been mutually extended five times since ’93, but in May 2008 the owners opted out. This leads us to today and the very real prospect of the first NFL work stoppage in more than 25 years.

I’ve been reading for months from “experts” that there is no way the players and/or owners would ruin a very good thing and risk alienating fans with a stoppage. But as we’ve seen already, it’s certainly not without precedent.

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