"In our next round of negotiations," says Ed Garvey, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, "we will be seeking a fixed percentage of gross revenues, which we will distribute according to a fixed scale."
"That's something we don't have any interest in," retorts-Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL's Management Council and the chief negotiator for the club owners. "We're not going that way."
The current contract between the NFL and the NFLPA will not expire until July 15, 1982. Negotiations will probably not begin until February. But the key issues are beginning to take shape.
In professional basketball, Larry Fleischer, director of the National Basketball Association Players Association, says the rights of players to participate in cable television revenues is likely to be a key issue in the upcoming talks for renewal of the contract that expires a year from now. Russell T. Granik, general counsel to the NBA, agrees that's a distinct possibility.
Skaters in the National Hockey League would like the right to move freely from one club to another, playing wherever they could cut the best deal for themselves. But John Ziegler, league president, contends the unique nature of the sports industry requires some restraints on player movement.
"This is not like General Motors versus Ford or Toyota," says Ziegler. "It would not be in the interests of the New York Rangers to drive the Washington Capitals out of business."
Sports unions are here to stay, and they are certain to be vital factors in shaping the future of professional sports in the United States. Labor-management relations in professional sports vary -- from the bitterness of the baseball strike to the relative hostility between the NFL and the NFLPA to the comparatively peaceful union-management of relationships in hockey and, after settlement of a drawn-out antitrust suit, basketball.
"The relationship between the NBA and the players association has been a reasonably good one. It has worked well, and I wouldn't see any change in that," says Lawrence O'Brian, commissioner of the NBA. "I would think collective bargaining as established in our sport will continue."
"The destiny of professional sports will depend on the ability of the owners and the players to seek out in the collective bargaining process the way in which the business is going to go forward," says Ziegler.
Unions did not become a significant factor in the sporting world until the middle or late 1960s, although there were attempts at organizing long before that. As early as 1885, says Douglas M. McCabe, a professor of labor relations at Georgetown University's School of Business Administration, attempts were made to organize players in the baseball community. In that year the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players was formed to deal with a variety of problems, including the poor condition of playing fields.
"Early efforts at collective bargaining were relatively unsuccessful due to the poor financial condition of baseball clubs," observed McCabe in a research paper on labor relations in baseball and other professional sports.
Despite sporadic subsequent attempts at organizing, it was not until 80 years later, with the appointment of Marvin Miller as executive director of baseball's players association, that organized labor began to make its first real bargaining gains.
"One reason it took the unions so long to evolve is that it wasn't until recent years that people began looking at professional sports as a business rather than a game," says the NBA's Granik.
"And it's a very different type of union. You're not talking about lower middle-salaried individuals who all have the same skills. You're talking about some very highly salaried players. In professional sports, the unions don't negotiate the salaries. They negotiate all the terms but the salaries. It's a unique sort of an organization."
In baseball, the right of a player to move from one club to another in search of the best deal is the key issue in the strike. But the NBA and its players association have an agreement on the issue that does not expire until 1987.
An outgrowth of the settlement of an antitrust lawsuit filed against the NBA by former players association head Oscar Robertson in 1970 essentially eliminates the option year of a player's contract and permits him to solicit as many offers as he can. He can pick one and submit it to his original team, which has the right to match it. If the team does match it, the player stays; if not, he can sign with the new club.
And while the sports unions do not negotiate salaries, they have profoundly influenced the dramatic escalation of player salaries in recent years, says Fleischer.
"We have a minimum salary of $40,000 in the NBA now and an average salary of $190,000. The union is the single most important factor in a player's relationship with the NBA. It covers the gamut of a player's activities from travel conditions and per diem allowances to pensions and medical and health benefits, grievances and arbitration and the sort of fine structure that can be imposed on him."
In hockey, Ziegler considers the advent of the player unions in the middle 1960s the most important development in the history of the sport. "In my opinion and judgment, the collective bargaining process is an excellent vehicle and opportunity by which the owners and players can plan the destiny of the business in which they both have a substantial stake," says Ziegler."We've been fortunate so far, in that whatever problems have arisen we have been able to iron them out at the table."
Alan Eagleson, who heads the NHL Players Association, agrees that in the past 10 years management "has been much more amenable to reasonable, structured negotiations."
But that was not always the case, he says. "In the early 1960s, the players were literally the pawns and serfs of the owners. The owners brought the problem on themselves by the way they treated the players . . . the low salaries and the high profits."
As is the case in baseball, freedom of player movement will be the key issue in hockey negotiations next year, Eagleson says.
"We look to baseball as the leader. Because they enjoy free agency, it is incumbent on us to seek it," Eagleson says.
Currently, free agents in hockey can sign with another team, but the old team must receive compensation. If the teams cannot agree, the issue goes to an arbitrator.
In the NFL, players have an option year in which they can either sit out or play with a 10 percent raise and then negotiate with any team in the league. But the original club has the right to match any offers, and should the player sign with a new club the old club is entitled to compensation in the form of draft choices -- up to two first-round picks for a veteran earning more than $200,000 a year.
Garvey contends the NFL is so rich and powerful that only through a union can a player negotiate any kind of deal for himself.
"Individual negotiations cannot work in a monopoly like the National Football League, where television revenues are shared equally and the owners describe themselves as partners," said Garvey. "In football the revenues now are so tremedous that the individual negotiating on his own cannot possibly get a fair share."
In seeking a fixed percentage of the gross, Garvey says the money would be distributed according to a formula that would take into account years in the NFLY, whether a player was a starter or a superstar, Pro Bowl appearances and the like.
"There would be plenty of incentive," says Garvey.
Getting management to buy the plan will clearly be another matter.
"That's not the way we're going, so we're just going to have to persuade them to accept something else," says Donlan.
In baseball, says Kansas City economist Michael E. Herman, the impact of television, as much as any other factor, has created an economic imbalance that permits some clubs to pay seven-figure salaries to superstars, thereby creating the free agent monster the owners abhor.
"It used to be that most of the economics of baseball were based on how many people came into your park," said Herman. But television has changed that, he said, and teams from the major metropolitan areas on the East and West Coasts have a television market five times as lucrative as, say, St. Louis, Kansas City or Milwaukee.
"You can compete at the gate, but you can't compete on television so you're going to have a situation where New York and California are going to set the salaries. And as long as you have free mobility, you're going to have very high salaries."