Let's say the National Football League set up a wage scale in 1972, Mark Moseley's rookie season and two years before Joe Theismann arrived. This wage scale, say, was the kind proposed now by the players' union, which asked the league to hand over 55 percent of gross revenue to establish the scale. The players' pay would be calculated by a formula involving seniority and performance.
Under the formula, the place-kicker Moseley would now have a base salary of $312,432. In addition, he would get a few-odd thousands for downs played, individual statistics and team statistical rankings. Let's make it an even $330,000.
That's maybe three times his actual salary today.
What about quarterback Theismann? The union formula would pay a ninth-year man $244,512. That's about $56,000 less than Theismann makes today. Various incentives might get him to today's pay.
If it seems strange that Theismann would strike to support a wage-scale demand that trebly enriches a kicker while doing nothing for a quarterback, that's because it is strange.
While the wage scale would raise salaries of anonymities buried in the line of scrimmage, glamor guys get nothing. Lynn Swann, Walter Payton and Terry Bradshaw know it. The union's strength is in numbers, and the political reality is that Executive Director Ed Garvey knows the hungry anonymities far outnumber the glamor guys.
So Garvey conceived the wage scale to satisfy the political majority needed for a strike. Common sense calls for Garvey to demand across-the-board salary increases along with free agency and salary arbitration, while giving teams right of first refusal on free agents. But he never could have worked up strike fever over free agency because offensive guards don't believe they have free-market value.
Garvey needs a strike, it says here, for a very different reason than obtaining any wage-scale plan.
He is looking to the future. He sees profits of maybe $50 million a team per year in cable and pay television.
So Garvey wants to make certain the players get a fair share of those profits. The strategy is to get a percentage of the owners' profits now. That's no bad thing. The players deserve more money. But even better for the union, getting a percentage today virtually assures it will get a percentage in the next contract five years from now.
Once management gives up something, rarely can it force labor to give that something back. An attempted takeback was the root of the baseball strike, when owners wanted to impose new limits on free agency.
Garvey wants to set the stage to get players a percentage of the big money to come. The strike is a proper attempt to correct past inequities immediately; it also is a stratagem in Garvey's game plan for the future. By striking now, the union has shown the solidarity to strike again.
The owners' negotiator, Jack Donlan, has a labor-management history of adamance. While working for National Airlines, he held out five months of 1974 before machinists accepted an offer that had been on the table when the strike began. The same unyielding position sent flight attendants back to work after a five-month strike, settling for an offer Donlan made three days into the strike.
If you change your offer simply because a union strikes, Donlan has said, you only encourage the next strike.
Both hired guns, then, have the strike they want. Now both must find a way out, probably through the expedient of federal mediation.
The union has rejected as a bribe and hollow guarantee what Donlan called a $1.6 billion offer. The union listed several reasons for rejection, but one suspects there was an unspoken reason: the offer said nothing about giving away a percentage of revenue.
Nor should it. The players deserve more money. They are rare and gifted entertainers. Their careers hang by a surgeon's thread. They have virtually no guaranteed contracts and have virtually no freedom to change jobs.
Yet the guard, a worker, does not deserve a flat percentage of the capitalist/risk-taker/owner's money. Revenue sharing that enriches NFL teams equally gives weight to Garvey's claim that teams have no economic incentive to win. In addition, most teams cannot significantly increase revenue, and so a Pete Rose-type free agent is not cost efficient in a socialistic league playing to sellouts.
Garvey's answer to NFL socialism is wage-scale socialism. Because players can't get rich as free agents, Garvey says, they must act as a collective, taking a lump sum from the owners and dispersing it according to scale.
That's where we get the strange reality of a place-kicker and a quarterback making the same salary. On such a snag do today's negotiations hang.
The players union, in fact, acknowledges a wide receiver is more valuable than an offensive guard. If the receiver wants more than scale, the union says he can negotiate with his team for it. The scale is only a minimum set to protect everyone, the union says.
The owners say different. Among their objections to a scale is their insistence that it be a maximum, not a minimum. If the union wants to extract a percentage that would pay a place-kicker three times his market value, the owners aren't going to pay a quarterback a dime over scale.
Management also objects to a scale setting a rookie's salary at $81,000 when the rookie may be Herschel Walker. Such a rookie might go to the United States Football League for, oh, maybe $82,000.
That wouldn't happen, the union says, because teams can negotiate contracts individually. To which the owners say, "If we're already paying the union 50 percent of everything, why should we pay more and make it 60 percent?" Bye-bye, Herschel.
What the union wants is not socialism and not free enterprise. They want both.
The players ought to pick one: free enterprise. They have proven they can act collectively. Now they should drop the wage scale as they earlier dropped the percentage of gross concept. First, get cash as payment for past penury. Free agency and salary arbitration would make them merchants selling their wares. Through free agency, linebacker Tom Cousineau wangled $1.5 million from Cleveland this summer. And defensive end Bruce Clark worked a millionaire's deal with New Orleans.
Teams will buy free agents. Salary arbitrations, decided by a committee of players and coaches, would raise the pay of even anonymous offensive guards. And when the massive profits come in five years, wouldn't it be nice to be a good player on the last year of a contract? If a linebacker is worth $1.5 million today, what will he be worth in 1987?
Probably a whole lot more than any wage scale promises.