What we've needed all along in this dollar dickering between the lords and serfs of the National Football League is one high-stakes game of persuasion, one grand public debate, winner take all. RFK Stadium would be ideal, it being mostly neglected anyway and situated in a city where issues that could be settled quickly, fairly and amicably rarely are.
The result of this ultimate collision between the Management Council and players association: peace that gets us back to uninterrupted violence in the NFL, a signed and sealed basic agreement that would end so much acrimony for so long.
One bold move; no strike.
It would be a very unusual game. Call it win-win, for even the side that failed would not lose. The owners very likely still would turn a handsome profit regardless of what was mandated; the players hardly would be begging in the streets for crumbs if the owners' arguments were more compelling.
How could such a vision become reality? How could a calamitous strike be avoided so swiftly? In one long night of point-counterpoint:
Both sides would choose a referee whose wisdom they trust and allow him ultimate power to end this negotiating impasse during one final, all-out public bargaining binge. Public? A nimble-minded promoter could make a bundle; both sides could pay considerable lawyers' fees.
I would pay dearly to watch such a show. Television would bust a transistor to be there.
I'd demand ABC. Howard Cosell, whose strength is boring to the core of complex matters in a hurry, would be in his element for one of the few "games" of his career. No more babbling the obvious; he'd be riveting, make much of America turn the volume back up.
"Danderoo," he could preen, "let's put it all on the table."
There would be an enormous table, of course, 55 yards from the owners' end zone as a sop to the players. And when Cosell finished his predebate analysis both teams, briefcases flailing from their sides, would appear under their respective goal posts and move in lawyerly leisure to the table and go at one another.
"No. 63, Gene Upshaw, brilliant at holding a union together and at guard," Cosell could say as Upshaw, wearing a three-piece suit and Gucci's instead of his usual armor, trotted to the table. "He explained strategy to me just this morning, over breakfast . . . "
"Ed Gah-vee, who I had lunch with . . .
"My dinner companion, Jack Donlan . . . "
And so on.
In most labor-management situations, I take an offensive lineman's position: hands off. I'm for letting a settlement take its natural course, for both sides to use whatever tactics they choose to achieve their goals. To pressure, to suffer.
We're talkin' entertainment here.
For the players, pro football is an interlude in their lives; they already are being vastly overpaid for what they contribute to society even though they are grossly underpaid for what they generate for the owners. Most owners have nearly unlimited resources outside football; they buy a team as much for the recognition it gains them as for its investment potential.
Every blessed owner talks about civic pride; let 'em show it, by accepting an unappealing solution to negotiations with the players. The Redskins' Jack Kent Cooke, among others, has pleaded with both sides to get cracking. Here's a way to make sure that happens.
Each side would come in with its bottom-line position, the one from which it refuses to budge, and offer it to the assembled 55,000-plus customers and the only person in RFK who mattered, the arbitrator. If compromise came about during the game, fine.
Such binding arbitration would make everyone consider his position long and hard, for there would be no backup offer. If the union's 55-per-cent-of-gross proposal is as etched in stone as it insists, sell that once more. The players have said they would fly or fail on that one issue. This would be the no-strike way to test that. Nobody loses a paycheck; every player gains.
At the end, after each side had presented its best case, the arbitrator would choose the one that touched him most the winner. No more hassle; no more dodging each other. Give it your best shot one final time to one final authority and let him make one final decision.
And let the country return to the serious business of who covers the spread. It's an idea whose time was yesterday, embellished a bit here so all of you who practice greed would not be on unfamiliar grounds. If you want to do it some other way, say accept binding arbitration but do it out of our sight, that would be fine.
For a change, just play a game where no one gets hurt too badly.