SPORTS

The cost of a free agent

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 5 1987
SPORTS

The cost of a free agent

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 5 1987

The cost of a free agent

From Houston, Tex., to Herndon., Va., the strikers pulled up to picket lines in expensive sports cars and smilingly, but firmly, refused to sign autographs. Clearly it was no ordinary strike, and the strikers— about 1,500 National Football League players earning an average of $245,000 annually—were not ordinary union members. But the broken windows of vehicles carrying replacement workers across the NFL players’ picket lines last week reflected volatile emotions common to union-management disputes. The 28 team owners intend to resume the season Oct. 4, with players released before the season began Sept. 13, Canadian Football league nonroster

players, and any NFL players willing to play. But, warned NFL Players’ Association executive director Gene Upshaw: “Any player that crosses a line will have a short career.”

The central issue in the second NFL players’ strike in five years is free agency. The union is demanding free movement between teams for players with four years’ service. The owners want to retain free agency with compensation, under which a team signing a free agent must compensate the player’s former team. Under that 10-year-old system, one player changed teams.

The owners’ decision to proceed with the schedule introduced a wildcard element that was not present in the last strike, when play halted for 57 days. Now the owners are gambling that NFL fans will watch even makeshift teams. A Washington Post poll last week showed that, while most fans opposed replacing

striking players, 60 per cent would watch their replacements play.

But none of the three major U.S. networks—which together pay the league about $27.5 million per week for broadcast rights—have indicated that they will carry any games involving replacement players. And two major advertisers on NFL broadcasts, Ford and Chrysler, declared last week that they would not buy commercial time during such games.

At week’s end the chance of a quick settlement appeared remote. “We have six to eight weeks of hard bargaining ahead of us,” said management negotiator Jack Donlan. Added Upshaw: “Free agency is about dignity and freedom.” The striking players and the owners may find the season’s biggest matchup to be one that they both lose.

ATHONY WILSON-SMITH