If the pro football players go on strike, it is the owners' fault. The owners have botched this. Call them arrogant, call them imperious, call them fools.
The 28 owners have a money machine cranking out millions of dollars, even billions. Yet these totalitarians who would take urine samples of players, who would fine players for shaking hands, who would deny players the right to work where they want to -- these owners would throw sand into the gears of their money machine before they would do the right thing for the players who make the machine turn so smoothly.
The right thing is to treat the players as valued employes with legitimate complaints. As baseball owners learned in a senseless half-summer of a strike, there is nothing to be gained any more by treating professional athletes as indentured servants who ought to be grateful for any scraps from the massah's dinner table. The courts have ruled for players, and against leagues, in virtually every freedom-issue case over the last decade. The tide is running against the plantation owners, and they'll be in over their heads soon if they don't do the right thing.
The right thing at this moment is to get back to the negotiating table with the players union representatives. Out of obstructionism, the owners' negotiators refuse to meet the union people at a training camp site. If they have to meet at midfield during a Redskins scrimmage in Carlisle, the owners' men should do it. By the petty fining of last week, by the refusal even to negotiate, the football owners are repeating the baseball mistake of welding the players' union into a clenched fist.
Once upon a time, the football players may have been divided about a strike. Two months ago, they may not have been sold on Ed Garvey's percentage-of-gross concept. But the owners offered the players no alternative plan. And now the sense -- at this typewriter, anyway -- is that the players are willing to strike in support of Garvey's plan if for no other reason than it is the only one anybody has proposed.
The players properly perceive management's refusal to offer a realistic plan as evidence the owners believe the union will crumble on its own. Such perception has made the union stronger. By doing nothing, the owners did a lot -- for the union.
It is a fact, of course, that the owners have submitted a counterproposal to Garvey's idea that the players should get 55 percent of all money taken in. But because the owners consider Garvey's plan an insult, they replied in kind. The owners' proposal is a microscopically improved version of the current compensation system that has shackled players to their teams and kept salaries below the levels to which they would rise in a free market.
The owners should come to the bargaining table with a new proposal. Somewhere between Garvey's percentage-of-gross idea and the chaos of total freedom (even we romantics acknowledge the need for some restraints in sports), there ought to be a middle ground.
On a shelf in Garvey's office, there is a foot-square block of stone.
Etched into the stone is a percentage sign.
Chances are, although Garvey is too stubborn to admit it, he would be happy to hear a proposal from the owners that would enable him to turn that stone around and carve a dollar sign in the other side. And chances are the owners, who have acknowledged that the players are underpaid, would go a long way with any proposal that raised salaries without tying the raises to a fixed percentage of gross.
So why doesn't someone suggest something?
At the moment, the National Football League doesn't suggest anything because it has a leadership crisis. Every time it goes into court, it comes out a loser. It lost every round in federal court to Al Davis and then, in a demonstration of unmitigated gall, went to the Congress of the United States asking for legislation to reverse that court's decision.
Earlier, the foundering lords of football missed their opportunity to divide the players' union by not giving dissident players an alternative proposal before the union's March convention. Lately, the league commissioner, Pete Rozelle, has come to Congress with an antitrust exemption bill that, if passed, would be followed, he said, by expansion of the league.
Rozelle has admitted that such expansion teams were "dangling" before the eyes of influential senators. This is the sort of dangling that politicians interpret as a payoff. You give me my new law, we give you a football team. Rozelle smoothly denied any such connection.
The commissioner was not so smooth Monday on Capitol Hill. Under fire from Strom Thurmond, the crusty old South Carolina Republican whose state neither has nor lusts for pro football, Rozelle said the league needed legislation because it would be impossible to draw up guidelines on when a team could leave a city.
You couldn't pin it on how they have done financially, Rozelle began.
"They would . . . That can be juggled. A team can arrange its figures in a way to show losses for several straight years."
Had Garvey stuck bamboo shoots under Rozelle's shining nails, he could not have elicited a more helpful quotation. It long has been Garvey's contention that owners aren't telling the whole truth about money, and now comes Rozelle saying figures "can be juggled."
With leadership so bewildered it gives this kind of comfort to its adversary, the NFL is headed for a strike that doesn't have to happen. It is time for the owners to make a conciliatory gesture to the players, to offer a plan that is more than a sarcastic reply to an insult from Garvey.
They should offer free agency to all players after three seasons. Garvey says free agency won't work because teams will not bid on players, there being (in his estimation) no economic incentive to win under the lazy comforts of the NFL's share-the-wealth socialism. To guarantee that free agency works, Garvey should demand binding arbitration contract disputes; if a player asks for $500,000 a year and the team offers $200,000, a neutral arbitrator should decide the issue.
There should be no compensation rules at all. The right of first refusal, under which the NBA and NHL work, is safeguard enough if a team wants to keep its quality players.
All this may not increase the salaries of undistinguished right guards as much as Garvey's 55 percent plan would. But with free agency, right of first refusal and binding arbitration, football players soon enough would be paid what they're worth.