While most football fans await the return of what they consider the real National Football League, the union leadership and NFL Management Council have been engaged in a dispute that is as much about control and power as any issue.
On one side is Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame player who has been involved in NFL Players Association struggles for two decades, flanked by a handful of lieutenants and an executive committee of player representatives from the 28 teams. Contrary to popular belief, Ed Garvey, Upshaw's predecessor who led the union through a 57-day strike in 1982, is not playing a behind-the-scenes role.
On the other side is the Management Council, the bargaining arm of the 28 owners. According to sources, the most power is being wielded by Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, the council's chairman. Both men are closely aligned with Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Jack Donlan, the executive director of the Management Council and the owners' chief negotiator, has no power to make a deal independently, according to management sources. His greatest asset, according to sources, is the ability to keep an opponent at bay.
While almost all the owners are opposed to giving the players unrestricted free agency, some hard-line owners are willing to take the effects of a strike until the union is broken. There is a minority of about five or six owners who want the strike settled quickly, but they do not have much influence.
One of the most outspoken members of the Management Council during the strike has been Schramm, who is given credit for creating the idea of replacement teams to play in what some call the "Tex's League." Schramm was the same official who, five years ago, was against using replacement players. Most owners believe using replacement teams was a good idea, putting additional pressure on players to return and keeping the season alive.
The players association does not have the resources -- especially in public relations -- that the NFL has. One ploy union observers feel succeeded for the owners was making free agency the key issue, then refusing to negotiate any other major issue until free agency was settled. Some NFL sources say that the widely publicized Upshaw-Donlan friendship was encouraged by the owners; and when the strike occurred, Upshaw looked like the bad guy.
The NFLPA rank and file talk to their shop stewards (player representatives) or members of an executive committee. These two groups set the union's policy. Upshaw, according to management sources, was seen as the one union leader who wouldn't strike for any reason. But union sources said the owners miscalculated; he wasn't afraid to act.
Here is a look at some of the key issues:
Pension and Severance:
The union is seeking a $25 million annual contribution from the league plus increases in severance; the union also wants the owners to pay $18 million the players say they are due from the 1982 agreement.
Management says guaranteed benefits, and not the amount of the contribution, are at issue; management wants to control investments and keep excess interest. Under management's plan, a player could combine pension and severance in a Capital Accumulation Plan that would pay, at age 55, a yearly sum of $44,500 to a five-year veteran, $54,300 to a seven-year veteran and $72,700 to a 10-year veteran -- what the owners say would be the highest-paying retirement plan in professional sports.
Originally, the union asked for unrestricted free agency for all players, but it has modified its proposal at least twice in the past month, most recently to conform to the owners' demand to keep the system's foundation of right of first refusal and compensation in the form of high draft choices. Under the union's latest plan, a team could keep a player by offering him 120 percent of his old contract and guaranteeing it; if he moved to another club, compensation would be based on his previous salary.
The owners have been willing to liberalize the scale for right of first refusal and compensation. They say their most recent offer would allow 49 percent of players to change teams for a third-round draft choice or less. The owners have adamantly refused to allow the players unrestricted free agency. Management says that any further liberalization of the free agency scale must be tied to the union accepting entry-level wages for rookies and second-year players.
Entry-level wage scale:
The players dismiss this proposal as a two-tier pay system that would jeopardize the jobs of veteran players and save the owners approximately $95 million annually in salary and signing bonuses.
Under the owners' proposal, rookies would be paid $60,000 annually and second-year players $70,000. Players would be paid a signing bonus depending on their draft position, from $500,000 for the first selection to $5,000 for the 336th. Rookie free agents would be allowed signing bonuses of up to $4,000. The owners say this plan would solve the agent problem and they say the savings would be used to pay veteran players.
Length of contract:
Originally, this was the only major item agreed upon -- three years. But owners now want six years, saying they agreed to three before the strike started but now need six for "labor peace."