As the hype and hoopla of Sunday’s Super Bowl XVI faded, hangovers thudded and windblown snow covered the traces in Pontiac, Mich. Super Bowl XVII was already in jeopardy. America’s most celebrated annual sports event had earned millions of dollars for the hard-pressed Detroit area, commanded $345,000 (U.S.) for 30second TV commercials and netted the victors $18,000 each, the vanquished $9,000. But the money doesn’t alter the dissatisfaction they share with players on the National Football League’s 26 other teams. To that end, they may all go on strike. “We are up against a tough group, a monopoly, with a lot of weight behind it,” Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), said last week. “We have stated our demands, and they have indicated that they aren’t even willing to talk about it.”
What the NFLPA is after when its general contract with the team owners expires July 15 is 55 per cent (at least) of gross revenues. The demand is unique in sports, and the figures are staggering. Based on projections for the 1982-’83 season, the league will gross almost $648.5 million. The players want $357 million of that. “If the union sticks to its demand for a percentage of the gross,” says NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, “there could be trouble ahead.”
The revenue attracted by the NFL sufficiently demonstrates that pro football is America’s number 1 game. Yet as Dave Meggyesy of the NFLPA, who played seven years for the St. Louis Cardinals and authored the first exposé of the NFL, Out of Their League, says, “Of the four major professional sports [football, baseball, hockey and basketball], football players are the lowest paidemdash;not only in average salary, but in percentage of revenues.” Hockey and basketball players reap just over 55 per cent of gross receipts, baseball players take home more than 40 per cent, and football players receive 30 per cent. “In absolute terms the figures are ridiculous, a reflection of the state of our culture,” says Meggyesy. “But in relative terms it’s hard to begrudge the players their share.”
The “ridiculous” figures include av-
erage annual NFL team revenue of far more than $14 million and profits of more than $5 million (1980 figures). If the NFL players shared 55 per cent of that revenue, their average salaries would have just matched those of hockey and basketball players. With a new TV deal in the offing and pay TV anticipated by 1987, the revenues will render the adjective “ridiculous” grossly inadequate.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. As Garvey points out, “The owners see hundreds of millions of dollars down the road that they don’t want to share with the players, and 92 per cent of the players have registered support for our proposal.” In fact, a survey of the 1,532 players indicates the majority favors demanding more than 55 per cent.
Among other issues that will stoke the first meeting between the NFLPA and the NFL Management Council on Feb. 16 will be control over medical treatment and artificial turf. “The players are at the mercy of their own naïveté and desire to play,” says Meggyesy. “They trust the system and forget that the doctors are employed by the owners.”
The Stanford Research Institute reports that there are twice as many football injuries on artificial turf than on natural grass. The players also want a hard look taken at their training groundemdash;college football. Most players attend college for four years, yet of the 5,000 NFL players from 1960 to 1979, 65 per cent did not obtain degrees. The NFLPA characterizes college football (a money spinner for U.S. universities) as a farm system that football owners, unlike their counterparts in baseball and hockey, do not have to pay for.
Affiliated with, and strongly supported by, the AFL-CIO, the players’ union has been counselled by the granddaddy of U.S. unions. “One of their leaders was telling me the other night that after 40 years of negotiating with Ford, the union is still not respected,” Meggyesy recalled last week. “We’re not even at the no-respect stage. The NFL is trying to wipe us out. We’re fighting for our lives.” And that fight may require the use of the players’ only weaponemdash;a strike. “We have to realize that it might be necessary,” says Garvey. “Prayers lt; haven’t worked.”
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