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Labor in NFL History

Picket Lines and Replacement Players: The 1987 NFL Strike

A few weeks into the 1987 season, the NFL's players went out on strike, hoping to win the right to free agency and to guarantee themselves a larger slice of the league's growing revenue pie. The owners, determined not to be bullied by the players' union (as they arguably had been in 1982, when another players' strike forced the cancellation of five weeks' worth of NFL games), resolved that this time, the games would go on as scheduled—with or without the players. What followed was one of the strangest months in pro football history, as NFL teams fielded lineups of amateur athletes unconvincingly masquerading as NFL players while the real players—many of them millionaires—walked picket lines, unconvincingly masquerading as blue-collar working stiffs.

The NFL's players had organized themselves into a union, the NFL Players Association, all the way back in 1956, long before the league became the massively profitable economic juggernaut we know today. In the early days, the union focused on on small-scale bread and butter issues—making sure players received per diem food money for road trips, earned extra wages for playing preseason games, and so on. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, as the value of the league's television contracts grew exponentially, the Players Association became more militant in seeking increased pay for the NFL's on-field personnel. In the fiercely competitive and often brutally violent game that is pro football, players' careers tended to be quite short. (The average NFL career today lasts just three and a half years.) The union sought to maximize its members' contracts, hoping to ensure that players could earn a lifetime's worth of wages before their bodies gave out or they lost their roster spots to younger, faster, and stronger players.

Owners, on the other hand, sought to maintain the league's profitability by ensuring that player salaries didn't spiral out of control. If salaries grew faster than revenue, the NFL would quickly lose its financial viability. Among the league's most important strategies for controlling player salaries were internal rules that effectively barred free agency by requiring any team that signed another team's out-of-contract player to a free-agent deal to compensate the player's former team with players, draft picks, and/or cash. The requirement for such heavy compensation made teams extremely reluctant to sign other clubs' players to free-agent contracts. By limiting free agency—the ability of a player to sell his services to the highest bidder on the open market once he reached the end of his contract—the NFL prevented outright bidding wars among its teams to obtain top talent and thus, the union claimed, unfairly suppressed player salaries.

The long 1982 strike—in which both sides held firm for more than a month, forcing the cancellation of nearly a third of the NFL schedule—ended inconclusively, with neither side particularly satisfied with the ultimate compromise. When the collective bargaining agreement struck in 1982 expired five years later, both sides once again dug in for prolonged battle over the question of free agency.

On 22 September 1987, the Players Association turned its negotiating threats into reality and went out on strike. The NFL was forced to cancel all games on Sunday, 27 September, but vowed that the next weekend's contests would go on as scheduled, with unfamiliar "replacement players" wearing the familiar uniforms of the league's 28 teams. The replacement players—mostly second-tier talents who had been cut from NFL teams in the recently completed preseason—had been offered $1000 a week, plus a chance to fulfill (at least temporarily) their NFL dreams, to serve as strikebreakers.

On 4 October, "Replacement Sunday," twelve NFL games kicked off as scheduled. The regular coaching staffs, officials, and TV announcers were all there. The games counted in the standings. Only the regular players were missing, replaced by a motley crew of hastily thrown together has-beens and wannabes. The football offered up by the all-but-anonymous "stars" of the replacement NFL definitely left something to be desired, and most fans stayed away. (Stadium attendance fell to about one-fourth of normal and TV ratings plummeted.) The striking players denounced their replacements as "scabs" and some fans ridiculed the replacement versions of their favorite teams as the San Francisco "Phoney-Niners," Los Angeles "Shams," or Chicago "Spare Bears."

Teammate vs. Teammate on the Picket Line

Still, shambolic as the on-field product may have been, the replacement games provided the owners with crucial leverage in their showdown with the players. By playing games, no matter how farcical, the league ensured that its vital TV revenues would continue to pour in. (And because the replacement players' salaries were so much lower than those of the regulars, owners' short-term profits actually increased during the strike.) The union, meanwhile, had built up no strike fund to provide financial support to its players; as the weeks dragged on and the players forfeited more and more of their pay, solidarity within the union's ranks began to crack. By the time the third week of replacement games rolled around, about 15% of the league's regular players had broken ranks and gone back to work. (Future Hall-of-Famer Steve Largent, the Seattle Seahawks' star receiver, returned to the field and unsurprisingly had the greatest game of his career against replacement opposition, burning the Detroit Lions' semi-pro secondary for 261 yards. Several teams witnessed nasty disputes between players who wanted to go back to work and those who wanted to hold firm to the union's demands; in Dallas, superstar running back Tony Dorsett put his body in front of star defensive lineman Randy White's pickup truck to prevent White from crossing the players' picket line to collect his paycheck. An enraged White goosed his clutch, causing his truck to lurch forward and forcing Dorsett to dive out of the way. Needless to say, such ugly incidents even between teammates could shatter trust and camaraderie among the players; by the strike's fourth week, the internal tensions unleashed by the strike caused a fracture within the union. Having won none of their demands, the players voted to go back to work on 15 October.

The 1987 strike ended in total defeat for the NFL Players Association. Having lost all leverage, the players crawled back to work without winning free agency, without winning a guaranteed share of league revenue, without even reaching agreement on a collective bargaining agreement. The owners' victory was so crushing that in 1989 the Players Association actually went out of business as a union; under federal labor law, workers gained standing to file class-action lawsuits against their employers only if they didn't belong to a union. Therefore, having been utterly thwarted in their 1987 strike, the players took the radical step of decertifying the union two years later to pursue their goals in court.

The Courts and the Grand Compromise: Free Agency and the Salary Cap

The players found more success through litigation than they had through labor action. In 1988, a federal judge first ruled that the NFL's rules limiting free agency did, in fact, impose unlawful restriction on the players' rights to sell their labor to the highest bidder. Ironically, the owners' victory in the 1987 strike proved to be so lopsided that it actually opened up the NFL to legal vulnerability by encouraging the players to abandon their union and pursue their grievances in the courts. Between 1988 and 1992, lawyers representing the NFL and its players tangled in numerous lawsuits, with the players usually but not always emerging victorious.

By 1993, both labor and management had become more willing to compromise than they had been for many years. Appeals of the league's various labor-related lawsuits were still pending in the courts; neither side could be sure of victory, and both deeply feared the consequences of defeat. Therefore the Players Association was again certified as a union, allowing both sides to return to the bargaining table, and in 1993 the league's players and owners agreed to a grand compromise that allowed the ratification of the first new NFL collective bargaining agreement in more than a decade. The owners finally granted free agency to veteran players, but in exchange the union agreed to a "hard" salary cap, limiting player salaries to no more than 64% of league revenues. For 15 years, that stability-bringing compromise has proven largely beneficial to both sides. League revenues and profitability have continued to grow, even while player salaries have increased substantially from an average of $217,000 in 1985 to $1.75 million in 2007. The bargain struck in 1993 may not last much longer, however; the current collective bargaining agreement allows either side to opt out in November 2008, and owners have begun making noises that they may do so to force a fundamental restructuring to rein in growth in player salaries.

Could another replacement season be just around the corner?

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