On September 21, 1982, the National Football League Players Association walked off the job in the first strike that cost games in professional football history. The players didn’t win all they wanted here, but it is an important moment in the history of sports unionism.
The National Football League began in 1920 and players were exploited from the outset. As was true throughout sports in these years, players were paid peanuts for their “game” while owners raked in the bucks. This was only one year after the terrible pay of the Chicago White Sox had led them to throw the World Series. NFL owners were no more sympathetic to the conditions of their players than was Charlie Comiskey. A 1957 lawsuit by an offensive lineman named Bill Radovich, barred from the NFL for joining another league, led the Supreme Court to say that the league did not have the same antitrust exception as Major League Baseball. This lawsuit led Abe Gibron and Dante Lavelli of the Cleveland Browns to start an initial union campaign before even it was decided. This led to the formation of the NFLPA in 1956. There was plenty of acrimony and owners were outraged. Players voted to strike in July 1968 and the owners locked them out immediately, but the whole thing ended in 11 days so the first threat to game ended. A similar thing happened in 1974, when the strike went on for six weeks but it only cost a couple of preseason games that the owners brought in scabs for, as if anyone wanted to watch preseason scab ball.
The owners were greedy. As the NFL became the dominant professional sports league in these years, the profits rose pretty rapidly. By the early 80s, the Super Bowl was the biggest sporting event in the country and viewership increased yearly. But the owners did not want to share the money with the players. The players wanted to get paid. This was the issue–it was all about the Benjamins in this strike.
Looking back from five years later, in a Los Angeles Times story when the 1987 strike took place, players considered the role of the strike in their careers. Rams running back Mike Guman noted that he was from Allentown, Pennsylvania and that was a town where you supported the union. He stated, “The last time, there was a feeling that everybody wanted to (strike), that we had to do it, that we have to get this thing done.” Rams defensive back Johnnie Johnson stated that he didn’t really understand the issues then but he looked up to his veteran teammates who did and followed their lead: “I knew what was on the table, but I didn’t understand all the benefits to the degree that I do today.”
After the games finished in Week 2, the players walked off the job. Said NFLPA president Gene Upshaw, “This announcement comes with no pleasure whatsoever. At the conclusion of tonight’s game between the Giants and Green Bay, all NFL training facilities will be struck. There will be no practices, workouts, or training. No games will be played until management abandons its unlawful course and engages in good-faith bargaining and executes a fair and equitable agreement. We are prepared to withhold our services, however long it takes. We have a solid front. The first game it will affect will be Thursday.”
The NFLPA had one major demand–55 percent of revenues be paid to players. This did cost the owners real money too–they had to pay $50 million back to the networks for the lost games. But the players and owners combined lost $275 million.
The NFL was not prepared to bring in scabs, as it would in the 1987 strike. Rather, games were simply cancelled until the strike concluded. That ended up being 57 days, meaning Week 3 through Week 10. The league ended up making up one week by adding a game at the end of the season featuring division rivals.
The time off was hard on players. First, many of them did not make that much money. The salaries were nothing like today. Second, a lot of these guys were not exactly saving their money when they did make it. I get the feeling–and this is anecdotal but I do see evidence for it–that the endless stories of your Allen Iversons just blowing through their millions has led professional sports stars to take their finances seriously from day one. As one example, Marshawn Lynch never spend one penny of his salary, investing all of it through his entire career. He lived off his endorsements and other paid gigs. I am sure there are still many examples of professional athletes not being smart with money, but it’s pretty central to the messages older players pass down to younger players today–think about LeBron James here for example.
What this meant is that a lot of players needed to get paid. The NFLPA tried to create gigs for at least some players by staging exhibition games, but not surprisingly, no one really cared about these, as they don’t care about the Pro Bowl today. John Riggins famously said, “I guess I’ll do just about anything for money.” Fair enough.
What ended the strike was not a union victory. It was players desperate to get paid. Basically the NFL waited out the players, knowing they did not have the resources to not play. With such a short shelf-life, much shorter than the other major sports, players wanted to get paid while they were healthy enough to do so. There were some gains made. Salaries did go up a bit. The NFLPA got access to paper copies of player contracts, which it did not have before. That part surprised me a little bit, as that’s just the most basic information a union needs to make smart decisions. Players also received small severance packages upon retirement, bonuses, and increases to postseason pay.
The NFLPA has remained probably the weakest of all the major professional sports leagues. The 1987 strike was destroyed from within by scabs such as Steve Largent. And while the union has slowly grown in power over the years, it remains a weaker entity than that of the NBA or MLB and owners still fundamentally run the show and call the shots.
Today, while the NFLPA may be few people’s union ideal, professional sports unions have played an important role in reintroducing the American public to union principles as they have sometimes taken principled stands on issues and also worked out their labor issues in a very public way. This has provided useful education for a lot of people and I think moved forward the national conversation on organized labor.
This is the 453rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.