They are the point men in the confrontation between the National Football League and the NFL Players Association: highly visible targets and, in the view of many union members, the most likely candidates for inclusion on the casualty lists when the conflict is over.
They are the player representatives, the 28 men--one from each team in the league--who represent the union to the players and the players to the union, frequently drawing fire from both management and their teammates in the process.
After the last NFL labor dispute was settled, 20 of the then 26 player representatives were casualties, either cut or traded.
"Ain't no glory involved in this job," says Robert Newhouse, the veteran running back for the Dallas Cowboys who became player representative during the offseason.
"They're going to get rid of everybody sooner or later, anyway," says Mark Murphy, the Washington Redskins safety who has served as the Redskins player representative for the last two years. "This is something I wanted to get involved in. I thought it would be a good experience."
When a player accepts an assignment as player representative, observes John Mackey, a former union president and Baltimore Colt tight end, there is a definite change in the way management perceives him. "You are no longer looked at as just an athlete. You're looked at as a politician who happens to play the game."
With contract negotiations between the NFL Management Council, the league's labor negotiating arm, and the NFLPA all but deadlocked, and players throughout the league reporting to training camp, pressures on the player representatives can only mount in the weeks ahead.
There have been three casualties already. Last week, Herb Orvis, the veteran defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts and that team's player representative, was released. Strictly a coaching decision, related only to performance on the field, say the Colts. The NFLPA says it's looking into the matter.
Earlier, Cliff Stoudt, reserve quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, resigned as player representative, saying he could not support the union's position "100 percent." Greg Buttle, New York Jets linebacker, quit as that team's player representative, citing the press of outside business committments.
Both Stoudt and Buttle say they were not pressured by management to give up their union activities. Buttle told The New York Times that Jets President Jim Kensil had promised him there would be no retaliation by management against any union leaders.
Nevertheless, says Doug Allen, assistant to NFLPA executive director Ed Garvey, the possibility of discrimination and retaliation after a settlement is something the player representatives know they have to live with.
"It comes with the territory," said Allen. "You are in the spotlight, and there is always that subtle management pressure on you. The player representatives as a group were cognizant of that fact, and they voted there would be no settlement until any acts of discrimination had been redressed and corrected."
Garvey observed that in the early days of the union "a player knew his job was on the line when he was elected player representative." Nowadays, he said, the "pressures are more subtle."
Roy Jefferson, a former receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins, remembers being traded from Pittsburgh to Baltimore after his activities as player representative in the 1969 season.
"I had been in the league five years, and I was all-pro two straight years and I played in the Pro Bowl two straight years. I had been second and third in the league in receptions, and they told me I hadn't reached my potential. I can only assume it was because of my union activities."
Today's player representatives, says Jefferson, currently an NFLPA staff member, run even greater risks of retaliation. "We pose more of a threat to more dollars. I think the guys are under even more pressure."
Jack Donlan, the executive director of the management council, retorts that charges of discrimination against player union activists are "completely specious. I can't see a coach waiving a quality ballplayer. The coaches are interested in winning. That's how they keep their jobs."
Donlan and the players union are poles apart on the union's basic contract demand that the NFL divert 55 percent of its gross revenue to a trust fund that would pay player salaries.
In a sampling of seven player representatives interviewed by The Washington Post, most said they were willing to risk whatever consequences might result from their union activity. None reported anti-union pressure on the part of management.
Several said they spend considerable amounts of time explaining issues in the contract negotiations to their teammates, and a few have taken heat from teammates who disagree with NFLPA positions. There were varying degrees of enthusiasm for their union responsibilities.
"The reward comes from the feeling that I'm helping the people I respect the most in the world: my teammates and the other guys around the league," says Tom Condon, guard and player representative on the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I'm not worried about it (being waived or traded)," says James Lofton, the wide receiver and player representative for the Green Bay Packers. "I try and play the best I can. I feel there are a lot of places in the league I could play."
Lofton says he views his job not as one of enforcing union policy on his teammates, but simply as presenting the union position. "I try to keep them informed so they can understand and make up their own minds. I did tell my players before it started that without action on either the players' side or the owners' side, nothing was going to happen. The owners don't have to get serious, and they're not getting serious."
Jimmy Cefalo, wide receiver and player representative on the Miami Dolphins, says, "I won't compromise myself to any union suggestion. When the union calls and says, 'We'll do this, so you do that,' I take it as a suggestion and nothing more."
At this point, said Cefalo, he has felt no pressure from management. "The pressure comes from the players on the team, but that has subsided recently. Most players are more worried about making the team now than they are about a work stoppage in September."
Dan Jiggetts, tackle and player representative on the Chicago Bears, says he often has to deal with divergent viewpoints from his teammates.
"That's some of the fun about it," he said. "It's what a democratic society is all about. You spend a lot of time explaining different issues. Sometimes it takes a personal approach. You may have to spend a couple of hours one-on-one talking to a guy about a particular issue."
On the Redskins, Murphy says he has recruited several other players to serve as a type of NFLPA team council this year. "People have so many more questions. 'What are our demands? What is our strategy?' We've had a lot of team meetings in the offseason and we'll probably have more when we get to training camp."
So far, says Murphy, he's had excellent relations with the Redskins management and Coach Joe Gibbs.
"I always talk to the coaches and management. So far Coach Gibbs has been very accessible. Very. But as a union we've got some things we have to accomplish. I don't think the system is so bad, but it's inequitable. And unless we stay together, we're going to end up with the same system we have now."