I HAVE A DILEMMA. I am a sports fan with no one to root for.
Because of the NFL strike, I cannot root for the Washington Redskins against the St. Louis Cardinals today. And because of the circumstances that brought us to this impasse, I cannot root for either side in the strike itself.
Let me explain my problem, starting with some personal history. I am a political junkie and a sports fan, but I was a sports fan first.
My memories of 1948 are not of Harry Truman upsetting Tom Dewey; they are of a 9-year-old sitting in Madison Square Garden watching one of the greatest teams of all time: the 1948 University of Kentucky basketball crew led by Alex Groza, Ralph Beard and Wah Wah Jones.
I have been a lobbyist for Common Cause for 11 years, but I first learned my craft in 1951 as a 12-year-old growing up in Brooklyn. I rooted for the New York Giants in the land of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Have you ever tried to convince someone that Wes Westrum (Giants catcher, lifetime batting average .217) was better than Roy Campanella (Dodgers all-star catcher, three-time Most Valuable Player, lifetime batting average .276)? That's not easy work.
Through perseverance and skillful advocacy, my brother and I converted all but two of the dozen kids on our block in Flatbush into rabid Giants fans. After that, all lobbying assignments have paled by comparison.
I was there, sitting in front of my radio on Oct. 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit "the home run heard round the world." My Giants had come back from 13 games behind to defeat the Dodgers at the last moment and win the National League pennant. It was a finish beyond even Frank Merriwell's wildest dreams.
Seven years later I sat in Yankee Stadium and watched my New York Giants lose "the greatest football game ever played": the sudden-death, 23-17 overtime victory of the Baltimore Colts over the Giants for the 1958 NFL Championship.
When I moved to Washington in 1963, one of my first acts was to acquire season tickets for Redskins games. I held on to my Giants season tickets as well. For the next half dozen years I had my choice, on any given Sunday, of going to see the Giants or the Redskins play. When I finally gave up my Giants tickets in 1969, I knew two things had happened: I had a become a Washingtonian, and I had entered middle age.
For the past 12 years, I have rooted exclusively for the Redskins -- and rooting for someone is what professional sports are about.
Columnist James Reston has provided us with the best explanation of why football is so popular: In a world whose daily events seem otherwise without outcomes, football gives us a beginning, a middle and, most gratifying, a resolution.
During those few hours each Sunday, tens of millions of Americans choose the team they want to win and root intensely for the outcome. And the rooting even affects the outcome. Statistics show that home teams won 62 percent of the professional games played last season.
Which brings me to my present dilemma -- no one to root for in the NFL strike.
The idea of rooting for the owners can be dismissed quickly. I do not pay $26 for two tickets eight times a year to see any owners play football. The owners have just signed new TV contracts worth more than $2 billion. The players are clearly entitled to their fair share of these riches.
The owners' negotiator, Jack Donlan, used to represent management for National Airlines. There is no more National Airlines.
Donlan does not have the players' interest in mind, and he does not appear to have my interests in mind either.
Then there is Al Davis. As owner of the Oakland, now-doing-business-as-Los Angeles, Raiders, he has shown all fans what they face in rooting for an owner. After 12 years of sold-out home games in Oakland, Davis rewarded his loyal fans by telling them to drop dead, he was going to L.A. to get richer.
What about the players, then?
There is an initial hurdle in thinking about rooting for the players. In this time of enormous economic hardship, it's not easy to cheer on young men who are striking because they only make an average of $90,000 for six months' work.
But I have gotten over that hurdle. The players do the playing and are entitled to their share of the riches. Their careers only last an average of four years. They face greater physical stress and injury than most other professional athletes. And their average salaries are less than half those of professional baseball and basketball players.
The hurdle I cannot get past is Ed Garvey. As executive director of the NFL Players Association, he is the reason football players have not been earning the money they could have in recent years. To put it simply, Garvey blew the negotiations five years ago when the last contract was signed.
The reason baseball and basketball players have done so much better financially is simple -- free agency, the crown jewel of professional athletes. Garvey, in his 1977 negotiations, gave away the jewel.
Free agency means a player can leave one team and go to another one if he gets a better financial offer. It moves players from a monopoly situation into a competitive marketplace. This has drastically lifted not just the salaries of the superstars but the entire salary structure of those sports.
The football contract negotiated in 1977, however, contained such stiff compensation agreements for the team losing a player to another team that there has been little movement of professional football players. And without movement and competition there have been no fabulous salaries.
Garvey blames the absence of free agency in football on The System. He says owners have no incentive to pay high salaries because they are sharing revenues almost equally, and therefore winning or losing does not matter to them. But that doesn't wash. Owners may not have to care about winning, but they do. It was the 1977 contract that left football players holding the short end of the stick. An effective free-agency system for football would have led to the same bidding war that has occurred in baseball and basketball, and it would have brought football players to the table this year in a far different position than they are now.
Having lost the free-agency negotiation five years ago, Garvey again chose to head off in the wrong direction.
For months and months leading up to the eve of the strike, his public bargaining position had as its priority a contract under which the players would receive 55 percent of the gross revenues of the owners. No one -- not even the most radical labor union in this country -- even fantasizes about the kind of contract Gavery was publicly advocating. Percentage of the gross are un-American (except in Hollywood). While it is true that the players do the playing, it is also true that the owners are the owners.
And once again, Garvey has ignored the need for a workable system for free agents.
Just before this strike began, Garvey switched the players' demand from a percentage of gross revenue to a percentage of the owners' TV revenue. The players continue to insist on a central fund for the distribution of salaries to players, eliminating individual negotiations between teams and players. The new offer ignores the free agency question.
Ed Garvey missed the boat in 1977, and he is missing it again in 1982. That leaves an inveterate rooter like me in the dumps.
Come on, Nobody!