The football owners now believe the players' union is dead serious about getting a flat 55 percent of all money taken in. They also think the players want a strike just for the macho of it. Well, this is to report that the owners have a simple message for the players: Take your football and go home, guys, because we're not committing baseball/basketball suicide.
For a while, the owners thought this 55 percent thing--an idea rejected consistently in all labor history--was a negotiating tactic hiding the players' real objective, whatever it might be. But now the owners' labor negotiator says his bosses believe the players really want that 55 percent of gross revenue.
"I thought the percentage of gross was a smoke screen," said Jack Donlan, the National Football League's negotiator. "But as it's gone along, if it was their intent to persuade management, they've got us persuaded that this is what they're selling."
But the NFL, although Donlan says it is amenable to some demands by players, isn't buying the revenue-sharing idea so close to the heart of Ed Garvey, the boss of the players' union.
"If they want the 55 percent concept and nothing else," Donlan told Washington Post reporters, "it's going to be a short negotiation . . . The owners are unalterably opposed to the concept . . . I can't believe (Garvey) would do that. But I might be wrong . . . From all I've heard and from all I've read, I get the impression a strike is an objective with them . . . It's like, 'Let's have one to show everybody we can have one.' "
Donlan smiled thinly. "There will be," he said, "no connection between a strike and getting a percentage of the gross."
As part of a media blitz this Super Bowl week, Garvey held a press conference Thursday to say 92 percent of his union's 1,530 players favor the gross-revenue concept, with 95 percent of them willing to strike. Garvey said "the chance of a strike will be significantly increased" if a new contract isn't signed by May 1.
With a first negotiating session Feb. 16 in Miami, the NFL's version of baseball's longest year heats up. The present NFL-union contract expires July 1, but Garvey has said players would not strike during training camps opening in mid-July. That leaves the possibility of a strike at the start of the 1982 season.
And as the players walked, here's what the owners would say: Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out, fellows. Donlan didn't say it in those words today. The idea was clear. Donlan, 46, a flinty Bostonian with 20 years experience in 40-plus labor negotiations for the government and National Airlines, says the owners want nothing to do with the financial terror rampant on other fields.
"We believe 17 of the 26 baseball teams lost money last year," Donlan said. "Seven soccer teams folded, and basketball is weeping, wailing and gnashing its teeth. This under the free agency systems that exist. It would not be the brightest move we could make to get in the same boat with those people."
Not now, not ever will owners accept revenue-sharing because they believe such sharing would lead to demands for some control of the business. Owners believe players, with short careers, then would make decisions on short-term greed instead of the business' long-term good.
"It's a philosophy that says, 'We're going to be your partners,' " Donlan said. "We don't want 1,530 partners."
Donlan, on the offensive because he believes Garvey is conducting an effective public relations campaign to put pressure on the owners, first characterized his opposite number as "vituperative and vitriolic." Then Donlan sprinkled vitriol around his room.
In a "very slick booklet" full of "innumerable misstatements" (to quote Donlan), Garvey claims NFL players are paid 28 percent of the league's gross revenue. "That's baloney," Donlan said. The figure, according to the league's hired gun, is nearly 44 per cent.
"The booklet tells players, 'Last year you got 28 percent and I'm going to get you 55 percent,'" Donlan said. "Garvey is simply doubling everything. He's talking about owners with megabucks. He gets into the macho 'you've been taken advantage of.' I can see how that flows. The fact is, none of that is correct.
"Garvey's full of it. Those figures come from nowhere, it's a joke. I asked him, 'Ed, where'd you get 55 percent?' He said, 'Because that's what the NFL paid players during the AFL-NFL war.' In 1967 at the height of the 'war,' the NFL paid players 43 percent. I asked, 'Where'd you get the 28 percent?' He said, 'We think, we estimate, we hope . . .'
"What the hell is going on?" Donlan said.
Tired of statistical gymnastics, Donlan mailed Garvey a letter this week hoping to end the numbers game.
"I called his bluff," the NFL's man said. Donlan invited the union to hire a "Big Eight" accountant to check a league report submitted both to Congress and in the Los Angeles anti-trust trial that shows the NFL paid players 43.9 percent of revenue.
Garvey's response was to suggest it would be meaningless to see numbers prepared by accountants hired by the teams and therefore suspect.
As for negotiations, Donlan said he hopes to start with small issues--meal money, say--and work to larger problems. But if Garvey insists on a percentage of the gross, negotiations will stop. That seems clear.
It also seems clear that Garvey must drop the percentage idea. A better target is the compensation rule. That rule stops superstars from moving between teams. If a team signs a player with a $200,000 contract, it must give up two No. 1 draft choices. That's why Walter Payton, a free agent, didn't get a single offer last season; two No. 1s are as valuable as a running back whose career could end tomorrow.
"We should be taking a look at the system," Donlan said, adding later, "If the philosophy is to improve the lot of football players, why is there only one way?"