The National Football League Players Association's controversial demand to share in a percentage of the NFL's annual gross revenue passed a test today when leadership's position was overwhelmingly endorsed in a straw vote of union members attending their annual convention here.
This was the first time that the union membership had been asked to vote on the percentage concept, which already has been rejected by league owners during negotiating sessions for a new collective bargaining agreement.
The unofficial ballot came near the end of today's general session, when members were asked to stand to show their opinion. According to those attending the closed meeting, no more than 10 players opposed the motion. Ed Garvey, the NFLPA executive director, put the number at seven. The NFLPA says that 537 of its 1,400-plus members are in attendence here.
"We were excited, no question about that," said Garvey, who is given credit for formulating the precentage concept. "But we were a little nervous, too. You put all this work and time into something and we knew the players believed in it, but then when the time comes to prove it, you get nervous. You just hope everyone will keep the faith."
And now the NFLPA hopes that the owners finally will begin taking the union's demands seriously. It has been the contention of many owners that a large number of the players did not support percentage of the gross and that Garvey and the union's executive board were ramrodding the proposal without proper union-wide consideration.
"Maybe now the owners will realize that they have to listen to us when we talk about percentage of the gross," said Houston's Elvin Bethea, a member of the union's negotiating team. "This was the biggest moment in my 14 years in this union; it's the biggest step we've taken in the history of the union.
"We've never before gotten this kind of support from our people and never have we gotten this much response."
The straw vote had not been scheduled for today. The union had planned to take formal votes on a number of issues Wednesday, including a possible resolution calling for either a rollback or freeze in league ticket prices.
But after almost three hours of discussion about percentage of the gross, Seattle's Dave Brown asked for the straw ballot. As Garvey and other union executives held their collective breaths, members stood en masse. Of those who opposed it, one was Dallas' Bob Breunig.
"This is a fine example of an open union," Garvey claimed, since dissident voices were allowed to speak openly at the meeting.
"I'm not completely satisfied with all the information on the direction the union is taking," Breunig said. "I'm not sure (percentage of the gross) is the way to go, but I could have a different idea when I get through with the convention."
There also has been some dissident lobbying during informal segments of the convention. Monday night, for example, a group of players met at a local hotel to hear Pittsburgh's Jack Lambert explain his objections to the percentage concept.
Lambert and teammate Lynn Swann probably have been the most outspoken opponents here, but Swann left Monday night and Lambert's efforts obviously have had little effect.
"Many players who feel like I do didn't come," Swann said earlier this week. "They didn't believe they would have an impact on the union process. So rather than come here and spin their wheels, they choose not to show up and vote.
"But I believe that as a player, I should make my opinions known. That way, if something happens I don't like, at least I can say my voice was heard. In 1977, a lot of people didn't take the time to vote (on a new contract) and now they wish they had."
Swann, who is not in favor of a strike, was concerned that an alternative to percentage of the gross never had been proposed. And he felt that "not as many members are in agreement (with percentage of the gross) as the leadership has understood."
Lambert claimed he was not antiunion but he also said that he would not honor a strike and would cross the union's picket lines. "I can't strike for something I don't believe in," he said. "Right now, I think maintaining individual negotiations is the right way. But the people here, they are very pro union. They will leave here believing in something, that's for sure."
Lambert also complained that the owners "have not come up with any alternatives that would help work things out."
Union executives, especially President Gene Upshaw of the Oakland Raiders, have downplayed the impact of the dissidents and also any impact the absence of most high-salaried players have had on the meeting. Only a few superstars, such as Cleveland's Brian Sipe, Philadephia's Ron Jaworski and Pittsburgh's Franco Harris, are here.
Upshaw said, "We have heard very few complaints about percentage of the gross. We just don't have that many (opponents). A guy making that kind of money just doesn't get much symphathy in this group. We listen to their concerns and try to help them out as much as we can . . . They all agree that out of 1,500 guys you aren't going to satisfy all of them as a unit."
There is no question that the union believes that it can succeed in its negotiations with or without support from the league's most publicized players. Garvey said, however, that those players making more than the salary proposed for their experience level under percentage of the gross had the option of either "continuing with that contract and letting the team pay the money or deciding to get the money out of the percentage pool. We would guarantee him he would be paid at the figure called for in his contract, plus an annual cost-of-living raise."
Upshaw: "We have unity. That's the one thing this convention is proving. Everything we do we will do as a solid front."