Where are you, Pete?
Earth to Pete Rozelle, are you out there?
Pete, phone home.
Just as Bowie Kuhn became invisible last summer, Pete Rozelle has dematerialized this fall. It is time for football's commissioner to use his leverage on the team owners. He may be an employe of the owners, who have handed the strike talks to another hired hand. But Rozelle owes it to the game's fans -- his ultimate employers and his bosses' bosses--to tell the owners it is time to get smart.
It is time for Rozelle and the NFL to put aside their outrageous assault on the Constitution in the form of that antitrust exemption bill on Capitol Hill. Had Rozelle and the NFL spent half the time on the strike talks that they've spent trying to squeeze special-interest legislation out of the U.S. Senate, there would be no players strike.
For most of 1982, Rozelle has worked the political levers of Washington, seeking a law that would lift the NFL above laws that ordinary mortals must answer to. But on the strike issue, Rozelle has admitted only to an observer's interest.
The game will survive a strike. Baseball will set attendance records this season. Sports survive such bitterness because the fans who pay the freight love the games in ways they don't fully understand. The games are entertainment, action and escape. They are more, too, for they are repositories of youth's golden memories and they are vehicles that carry us to vicarious victory in a world dark with defeat.
Yet a certain melancholy exists, because a strike is senseless. It is time for Rozelle and the NFL to put aside their petty, vengeful war with Al Davis, who has won fairly in our federal courts the right to move his team wherever he wants. The NFL's megabucks lobbying of Congress for a law that would overturn the court's verdict is the definition of rich-boy arrogance. When an NFL expansion franchise shows up in Phoenix, you can be sure Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), the sponsor of the NFL legislation, will smile real big at the home opener.
Now is the time for Rozelle to say to the owners, "Let's forget the antitrust stuff for a minute. We're losing in the strike talks. You know, I know and the fans know that the players aren't getting their fair share of money they make for us. Let's raise salaries right now, guarantee them a percentage of all TV money for however their union wants to use it and loosen up on free agency. We can figure out the numbers. There's enough money for everybody."
Rozelle did the bargaining on that $2.1 billion television deal. It was done quietly and efficiently. That's because the two sides wanted to make a deal. They recognized that each had something to sell. They dealt on common issues. It may be stretching his reputation to say, as some have, that Rozelle "extracted" all that money from the TV people. Little Orphan Annie's dog, Sandy, could sell NFL football to TV for $2 billion, because TV then sells it to advertisers for -- what? -- $3 billion maybe.
And the fans at home pay the advertisers by spending who knows how many billion buying deodorant and beer and automobiles.
The point is, Rozelle goes to the TV people in good faith. The NFL hasn't done that with the players. The sides have not agreed on issues, let alone how to settle them. The players' union asks, ridiculously, for 55 percent of the gross revenue; the owners answer, foolishly, with what amounts to hush-money raises to buy off the would-be strikers.
It is time for Rozelle to step in and define the issues, to get both owners and players on the same page. Only then can progress happen.
And if anyone doubts the need for Rozelle to jump into this mess, they need only read 55 words spoken this weekend by Billy Sullivan. The owner of the New England Patriots said pro football players are too smart to follow Ed Garvey into a strike. We might hope Sullivan is an aberration among owners, but on the chance that he is typical we repeat part of his little speech.
"I think we have too many intelligent people in the (Patriots) dressing room and others all over the nation and too many intelligent wives to let Garvey lead them by the nose like they're puppy dogs," said Billy Sullivan, who also said, "I don't think they will sit idly by and have no butter on their bread or have no bread."
What an orator. In 55 words, Sullivan reached out and touched the hearts and minds of men, women and union leaders everywhere. Though the players have voted overwhelmingly to strike, the orator Sullivan says that would be a dumb thing to do. So dumb, he says, that the wives, who must wear the shoulder pads in the families, won't allow it. Meanwhile, Sullivan paints Garvey as a dastardly villain who would keep bread out of toasters from coast to coast.
The seductive dancer Isadora Duncan once proposed marriage to George Bernard Shaw. How beautiful, how brilliant would be the children of such an union, the dancer said. "But what, my dear," the playwright said, "if the poor things should have my body and your brain?" In only 15 words, Shaw set a standard for insult beyond the reach of a mere football owner. But give this much to Billy Sullivan: he tried.
He insulted professionals who are rare and gifted performers by suggesting they are servile creatures incapable of independent thought. He insulted their wives by suggesting the women would browbeat the warriors into reneging on promises firmly made. As for Garvey, he doesn't mind being insulted because he understands, even if Sullivan doesn't, that every insult thrown at their union's executive director only stiffens the players' resistance of the owners.
"They're doing my job for me," Garvey said happily.