Commissioner Pete Rozelle of the National Football League said today that when the league's collective bargaining agreement and television contract expire after the 1986 season, the NFL will confront the possibility of its second players strike in five years.
"Obviously, all of the elements are there that will make it very difficult to reach agreement," Rozelle said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I won't say we'll necessarily have a strike situation. But I will say that it will be a serious bargaining situation for the league."
In the wake of a two-day strike by major league baseball players, Rozelle responded to questions about the growing number of strikes in professional sports today. Major league baseball endured a 50-day players strike in 1981 and the NFL withstood a 57-day strike that wiped seven games off the 1982 regular-season schedule.
"I think the agents (for NFL players) have taken on that 'Big Daddy' role," Rozelle said. "Now there will be pressure on the players association and (union Executive Director Gene) Upshaw to deliver meaningful gains to their constituents.
"The players look to the union and to their agents and say, 'My agent got me a contract that has allowed me to be set for life, but what has the union done for me lately?' " Rozelle said. "The pressures will be on the players association to show the players that the agents aren't the only ones working for them."
Upshaw was out of his office late today and was unavailable to comment.
Rozelle said the league's next television contract is crucial to the future of the NFL. Ratings on NFL games dropped on all three networks in the 1984 season, ranging from a 4 percent decline on NBC to a 6 percent drop on ABC and a 14 percent drop on CBS.
The current NFL television contract, signed after the league had its greatest season in terms of television ratings and attendance in 1981, is $2.1 billion over five years. The league's previous TV deal was in excess of $600 million over four years.
"I'm certain that (the next TV deal) won't multiply . . . like it did last time," Rozelle said. "We can't anticipate $5 billion over five years. I do expect that we'll be able to justify a hearty increase, though."
Rozelle said the NFL has not held discussions about a new contract with the networks. He said those discussions might not begin until after the 1986 season. "We hope that during that time our ratings will improve," he said.
Rozelle also discounted the possibility that decreased ratings might bring a decreased TV package. "Not with the inflation factor involved," he said.
There also will be pressure on NFL owners when the current agreement expires, the commissioner said. "When you get a strike in any sport, the owners get in a position where they have to rap their product, their players. The owners don't like doing that. It's hurting what they are trying to sell. The other pressures are basically economic ones."
Neither is it possible, Rozelle said, to learn from past strikes, in either football or baseball. "Each one is different," Rozelle said. "The issues are different. The personalities are different."