For the most part, what the NFL owners got away with Sunday was an insult to the intelligence of anyone who pretends to know the least little bit about the levels of football. Yet Scab Ball drew a higher television audience than the most important game of the baseball season. The striking players may now regret having passed on the chance to turn that sham into a fiasco.
The NFL Players Association had the power to orchestrate those major league games featuring minor league talent. It still does, assuming negotiations with the owners that reopened yesterday do not reach a settlement in time to avoid week two of Scab Season. Here's how:
Each week, the NFLPA could haul half its teams off the picket line. By matching one real team against one replacement team, it could create 75-0 games that absolutely nobody would pay to see -- or sponsor -- more than a few times. Teams would alternate, playing one week and striking the next, so players would only lose about half as much money and the won-lost records during the strike would be closer to even.
Last week, for instance, the NFLPA might have told the St. Louis Cardinals to report for duty about Wednesday, practice diligently and kick the bejabbers out of the Scabskins in RFK Stadium. Having done that, they could grab a paycheck with one hand and a picket sign with the other.
It would be the Redskins' turn this week, against the Giants in their home park. Given the awfulness the Giants showed against the 49ers Monday, the Realskins might score seven touchdowns by halftime. And so on throughout the league. One week, play and get paid; the next, strike and see the guys in your uniforms clobbered.
"We thought about sending all the visiting teams in," a union official admitted, "so the home team would be crushed in front of their fans."
The idea was dismissed.
"The danger with that," he said, "is that when players went back in, it might be impossible to get them back out."
The players are bending, we're told, and that is to be expected. Twenty-eight men who share so much NFL-related revenue always will remain more united than 1,500 men with vastly different incomes and values. And the owners trotting out the lodge brother who suffers most from Scab Ball, Miami's Joe Robbie, was a typically bright touch. Robbie has a new $100 million stadium to pay off, and his Dolphins have yet to play a regular season home game.
Everything in every strike is negotiable, including that noon deadline today for players reporting to their teams if they want to suit up Sunday. Betcha if a settlement is reached Thursday night, the real Redskins will be bopping the real Giants in the Meadowlands.
(Who wouldn't like to jab Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs with about 30 seconds worth of truth serum this morning and say to him: "You'd really rather the strike lasted through the Giants game, right?")
A new sticking point in the negotiations evidently has arisen: whether the Scab Ball games should count. It involves more than integrity for the owners, keeping their word to fans and advertisers that they were underwriting at least one-sixteenth of the route to the Super Bowl. There is a rougher issue involved. It's called precedent.
If the owners give in to the players and call these scab games exhibitions, they will lose a mighty lever for the next strike. The players could walk out, some season down the line, and any threat by the owners to play on would be dismissed by the very fans and television executives bankrolling them now.
The players could not have devised better Scab Ball to serve their purposes than the Giants-49ers dud Monday night. The only reason any televiewers stayed much past halfway through the second quarter was anticipation of players association news and the delightful way ABC's announcers handled matters.
The level of play Sunday and Monday was not hard to figure out. If you wrap garbage in a Garfinckel's bag, it still eventually smells. So players mostly from the USFL or Arena Football are not, all of a sudden, going to resemble the '62 Green Bay Packers or the '72 Miami Dolphins.
With a few exceptions, the Giants being the most glaring, the executives of successful teams in Real Ball were best prepared for Scab Ball. Joe Gibbs and Bobby Beathard of the Redskins; Tom Landry, Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm of the Cowboys; the 49ers' Bill Walsh, the Seahawks' Chuck Knox, the Saints' Jim Finks.
This raises a point: if the NFL wants true parity, shouldn't there be a draft, every five years or so, of general managers and coaches? Those very meaningful men have the right -- gasp! -- to move from one team to another without compensation. Dare we say it? They are free agents.
Pension, severance and disability compensation may be the important issues now for the players, if they haven't been all along, and the language of any agreement will be as important as the money. The NFLPA contends that disability already is overfunded, but the rules over who can collect are so restrictive almost nobody does.
If the players are given a sop, it might be back pay for time spent on the picket line, as happened in 1982, and/or making up the games canceled two weeks ago. It would be the decent thing for the players, for the fans and for Robbie, who also could use fresh cash.