For the good of the sport and the integrity of the NFL as we know it, Pete Rozelle should postpone the first week of Scab Ball and act to avert what could be the first step on the road toward disaster.
Since both the owners and players seem intent on pursuing a course that can only exacerbate their hostilities, and since neither the owners nor the players seem willing to holster their guns, the tranquilizing action must be imposed by Commissioner Rozelle, whose recent public appearances are so infrequent that if he were a Soviet leader, Kremlinologists would be speculating on his health.
No matter what the standings say, no matter what the scores are, Scab Ball will produce no winners. Only losers.
First of all, and there's no disputing this, the games can't possibly be as good. Only a smattering of front-line NFL players will participate this Sunday; with less than two weeks of practice there's no reason to expect the level of play to be even as good as top-20 college football. The promise that the games will count in the standings is an anarchist's dream: The concept of parity that the NFL has stressed over the last decade will be instantaneously overhauled.
Can anyone say Scab Ball will have been a fair test of a team's ability if, for example, the Chicago Bears go into the strike at 2-0 and come out of it at 2-5? How could the best teams have won, if, in fact, the critical variables for success were union defectors and a comprehensive management hidden agenda? What of the records that might be set during Scab Ball? Fifty years of statistics shouldn't be trivialized by a quarterback nobody ever heard of throwing every down in a game played by players whose last previous organized experience was a Saturday morning beer-and-sweatshirt league.
But forgetting how Scab Ball would offend your sense of history, consider the effect it might have on the game for years to come. The mere act of playing these games could be the symbolic act that hardens each side's position to the point of intractability. Who knows what fools these macho men may be?
The striking union members are gambling that the fans are sophisticated and discerning enough to dismiss Scab Ball as not worth their time. They're hoping people stay away, that gate attendance and television audiences are low this Sunday and drop progressively lower, thus convincing the owners that the elite NFL player is not a replaceable part, and that the American public will not pay champagne dollars for a jug wine. The players hope Scab Ball will rally fans to their side by offering proof that the NFL belongs on a respirator without them.
But the owners may have time on their side. Scab Ball will get better each week. The longer it goes, the more it will resemble real football. The owners can make money even if ratings and attendance drop off substantially. They're prepared to give back money to the networks that can placate the advertisers and keep Scab Ball on TV. It is, after all, a business. Hiring scabs so drastically reduces team payrolls -- by many millions of dollars over a full season -- that by operating at 60 percent at the gate and in the ratings, owners probably can satisfy the networks and the advertisers and still make money. Then, only the players will be losing money, a severe psychological disadvantage for the union.
The owners are gambling that fans want to see professional football badly enough to initially accept a diluted product, that over the course of four or five weeks the product will improve and the fans will come back. The owners are hoping the strikers will be sufficiently frightened by this trend, and sufficiently frustrated by their lack of income -- especially considering their ephemeral shelf lives as professional athletes -- that they'll defect from the union. Weekly, the players are losing dearer money than the owners. Just 20 or 30 star players coming back to play could break this strike as easily as if it were a twig.
But there's danger here for the owners, too. Scab Ball can be their Waterloo. Let's say the union has solidarity. Let's say the strike goes eight, 10, 12 weeks without significant defections. And let's say the players then go, en masse, before a judge with a class action suit that says: Your honor, we have tried to bargain with the owners, and they refuse. We have gone on strike, as is our federal guarantee, and they've replaced us with scabs. We cannot ply our trade. We know of men who want to form a new football league that will begin play in the spring of 1988. We want to be released from our NFL contracts so we can play in that league, earn a living and support our families. We ask only the right to work. To bind us to the NFL, which has already replaced us, would be to restrain our fair trade.
When was the last judge who ruled against a man's right to make a living? What do you want to bet the judge would pronounce the players' NFL contracts null and void?
To form a new league would take men with deep pockets who can guarantee the contracts of the NFLPA members. Because this is, after all, a business.
Donald Trump has deep pockets.
This is how the USFL can rise, like a phoenix from its own ashes, and with the stroke of a pen become what it always wanted to be: the NFL.