The National Football League is 60 years old.
In six decades, its numbers and basic elements have not changed. There are four downs. There is offense. There is defense.
Now, though, it is the NFL that is on the defense. Its purse enlarged by a $2 billion television contract and its ego swollen by soaring popularity, the NFL faces a myriad of off-the-field problems as it readies for the 1982 season.
It is being challenged by the new Offense of the 80s: the threat of a player strike, the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders case with its antitrust ramifications, the stories about widespread drug abuse and the creation of a rival springtime league, the United States Football League.
Consequently, the NFL has set itself in a prevent defense. It is defending its integrity in court, in congressional hearings, in the locker room and at the bargaining table.
"All this turmoil is, in effect, a tribute to the popularity of the game," said Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.
"We're a target for attack. We personify what it is like to be on top and to be under attack from all sides."
It is first and 10. The NFL is on the defense. The players association has the ball.
Since mid-February, when the NFL Players Association gave the league's negotiators its basic contract demand--that the league divert 55 percent of its gross income to a trust fund to pay player salaries on a seniority-based scale with performance incentive bonuses--there has been scant progress.
Although the league, which negotiated a $2 billion television contract over the next five years, says it's ready to improve player salaries and benefits, the owners insist they will never agree to a plan tied to percentage of gross income.
"We negotiated a television contract for a lot of dough. I feel there is enough money there, and there should be some way of dividing it," says NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. "I think in the final analysis they will be able to do it."
But Ed Garvey, the executive director of the NFLPA, contends the NFL Management Council, the league's labor negotiating arm, has refused to bargain in good faith, and he argues the council lacks real authority to negotiate a contract. Pro football players, who earn substantially less than baseball or basketball players, are willing to strike to enforce their demands, he says.
"I think there is a real leadership crisis in the NFL at the moment," says Garvey. "I don't know whether it's the Old Guard beginning to crumble or whether Pete has lost his fast ball."
Jack Donlan, who represents the Management Council on the other side of the bargaining table, insists he has full authority to bargain and says it's Garvey who's impeding a settlement.
"Ed's been talking strike all along," says Donlan, who calls the percentage of gross revenue proposal "a cockamamie scheme that we don't have anywhere else in the country."
In the days immediately preceding the Sept. 12 regular-season opener, Donlan says he'll reevaluate the situation and may lock the players out if there does not appear to be more progress toward a settlement.
It is second and seven. The NFL is on the defense. Somewhere between Los Angeles and Oakland, the Raiders have the ball.
A federal jury ruled last May that the NFL regulations governing relocation of franchises were in violation of antitrust laws. This case has the potential to hurt the league far worse than a strike could.
That decision, which cleared the way for Raiders' managing partner Al Davis to move the team from Oakland to Los Angeles, over the strong objections of the league, poses a threat to the stability of the NFL, according to Rozelle.
"If you can't use fan loyalty and fan goodwill as the basis for preventing a team from leaving, then we will be in a lot of trouble," says Rozelle, noting that the Raiders' home games had been sold out for 12 consecutive years. "You could have a situation where the clubs would be setting themselves up to be auctioned to the highest bidder."
But the implications of the Raider decision go far beyond the question of whether the team plays in Oakland or Los Angeles.
Ultimately, says Rozelle, it comes down to whether the league can enforce its rules.
"Our owners' basic concern was that they could all sign their names to obey certain rules, and then some 14 or 15 years later, you could have one club saying, 'This rule is illegal.' On the same basis, you could have all our rules challenged."
Rozelle also says the Raiders case virtually invites an antitrust challenge to the NFL practice of sharing television, playoff and Super Bowl revenues equally among all 28 clubs, a policy he says is the key to maintaining competitive balance on the field and geographical diversity of the NFL teams.
As a defensive strategy, the NFL is backing legislation on Capitol Hill that specifically exempts its revenue sharing policies and its rules regarding relocation of franchises from antitrust liability. As written, the section on franchise relocation would apply retroactively to the Raider case.
Garvey, among others, opposes the measure. "Thoughtful people who have looked at it don't think it's a very useful bill to pass. It doesn't really help anyone. It doesn't help the cities or the stadium authorities."
It is third and three. The NFL is on the defense, facing the issue of drug abuse.
In the June 14 issue of Sports Illustrated, former Miami Dolphins defensive end Don Reese wrote in a first-person account that cocaine abuse is widespread in the NFL. Reese wrote: "Just as it controlled me, it now controls and corrupts the game, because so many players are on it."
Reese alleged that when he was with the Dolphins (1974-76), half the Miami players used cocaine in "recreational doses" and some players, including him, snorted cocaine in the back of the plane coming home from road trips.
There were many disbelievers. One was Miami Coach Don Shula, who said, "To hear that guys were sniffing things behind my back, I find hard to believe. I just can't see it happening."
Today, the shock waves still reverberate from end zone to end zone, from coast to coast. There have been denials and confessions.
San Diego running back Chuck Muncie, named as a drug abuser by Reese, has admitted to his use of cocaine. So has New Orleans running back George Rogers, the NFL's rookie of the year in 1981. Former New Orleans running back Mike Strachan was under the microscope, too; he pleaded guilty to two cocaine-related charges after plea bargaining last month.
In response to the uproar, the NFL management demanded that players be required to take urinalysis tests. The players responded that the tests were an invasion of privacy.
The NFL has asked every team to establish a drug rehabilitation program for players. Each team complied. The league also sends Charles Jackson, assistant director of security, to speak with each team about drug abuse and related problems.
"Anything that could affect the integrity of the sport, naturally you're concerned about," Rozelle said.
"I continue to believe management kept that issue alive as long as possible because it was a no-lose issue for them. It obviously doesn't help the image of the players," said Garvey.
Defending the NFL, Modell said, "No one else can tell me other sports don't have drug problems. I have no proof, but it has got to be there.
"In other sports where there is more time on the road, more leisure time, it's just got to be there."
It is fourth and one. The NFL is on defense. The USFL has the ball.
The USFL is a 12-team league that could make professional football a 12-months-a-year sport.
In 1983, this made-for-television league will play its first full season from March through June, with playoffs in July.
"We start in August and have the Pro Bowl in February," Rozelle said of the NFL. "We're concerned. I don't know. It will mean football every month of the year."
Chet Simmons, the former president of the ESPN sports cable network, is the commisioner of the new league. "Right now, the NFL is seeing the Boogeyman around every corner," he said. "We are not a Boogeyman. We hope to stand on our own feet. I think our impact on the NFL is more of a perception than a threat."
What about overexposure of the game?
"We certainly won't hurt the football appetite. It's too big," Simmons said.
"It would make a good feeder system for the NFL," said Modell.
"The greatest football farm system is the colleges," said Simmons. "Our idea is not to draft a player or develop a player with the plan to let him leave after one season."
Already, the USFL has hired several NFL assistant coaches (Pittsburgh's George Perles and Philadelphia's Dick Coury) and made them head coaches. Several NFL front-office people have also moved to the new league.
What about raids of NFL players, though?
"If a player has a contract, he has a contract. He has to play for that team. You can't raid a player with a contract," said Simmons.
"Our budgets are less than the NFL will make from their television contract in one year," said Simmons. "There may be some college players drafted in the first or second round who we may make a substantial effort to get. Some of our owners may decide that they want to go after a name player at great expense."
Simmons added, "There are plenty of players to go around."
The numbers and alignments remain the same. But the game has changed. The NFL's old defensive line won't hold.
"Who knows?" Modell said. "Maybe 10 years from now we will all look back at this and say, 'Things were sure simpler back then.' "