Commentary

Lengthy strike has mostly been forgotten

Although the 1982 strike is a distant memory, the NFL is not exactly enjoying complete labor peace, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: September 21, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Not surprisingly, even in a league that justifiably finds a way to recognize most seminal moments in its 88-season annals, there were no celebrations this week commemorating the silver anniversary of one of the most significant events in NFL history.

Go ahead, do a Google search for NFL+players+strike+1982, and see whether you come up with any feature stories in any major publication in the country from the past day or two that recalls the infamous day on which the league suddenly went dark for more than eight weeks.

INSIDE TIP SHEET
Here's some of what you will find in Tip Sheet notes. Insider

• Russell cashes in
• Leftwich's fresh start
• Anatomy of Leftwich deal
• McNabb must improve
• Johnson on the mend
• Young's big challenge
• Grimm changing the Cards
• Packers on the defensive
• Niners will miss Lawson
• Kiffin on the right track
• Mangini had no choice
• Belichick's tax break
• Wroten's latest mistake

Football stopped that year for 57 agonizing days. And two-and-a-half decades later, it seems, most fans who were around in '82 have stopped thinking about the tumultuous strike and the labor problems that were fomented in that era. There basically is an entire generation of NFL fans now who can't recall an autumn weekend without the sport.

Which isn't an altogether bad thing.

According to the chronological history section of the 2007 NFL Record & Fact Book, the work stoppage began Sept. 20, 1982. Most newspapers, though, peg the start of the players' strike as a day later because the Monday night game of Sept. 20, a 27-19 win by the visiting Green Bay Packers over the New York Giants, didn't end until after midnight. That game in Giants Stadium was the last contest played until the truncated season resumed Nov. 21.

The regular season, under a plan devised by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who would serve as the key mediator in two work stoppages in the 1980s, was reduced to nine contests. The NFL then enacted a "Super Bowl Derby," in which the eight franchises with the best records in the two conferences advanced to the playoffs.

But in between the Packers-Giants game of Sept. 20 and the resumption of play, there were a lot of negotiations, a lot of words and a lot of broken hearts around the country, as legions of fans sought diversions for long, NFL-less Sunday afternoons. A lot of men who otherwise would have remained relatively anonymous to America -- league negotiator Jack Donlan, NFL Players Association executive director Ed Garvey and federal arbitrator Sam Kagel, who passed away earlier this year -- became pretty famous.

Then, the more their countenances showed up on television as they exited another futile bargaining session, they became infamous.

The cover of Sports Illustrated on Sept. 27, 1982, the first edition published after the strike, showed a football with most of the air pumped out of it, sitting on a football field with just the goalposts visible in the background. The headline: "PFFFFFFT!" Indeed, it was a deflating time.

Pete Rozelle
Pete Rozelle was simply unable to prevent the long work stoppage.
The NFLPA actually staged two AFC-NFC "all-star" games during the strike, perhaps the lowlight moments of the work stoppage, and the contests drew only 8,760 fans to RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., and 5,331 to the Los Angeles Coliseum. Said then Redskins star fullback John Riggins after the first game: "I guess I'll do just about anything for money."

The all-star games, now a bad bit of football lore, were about as unmemorable then as the whole concept of a work stoppage seems to be now.

So why haven't more people recalled the '82 strike on its 25th anniversary?

There are a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it represented one of the darkest events in the otherwise mostly glorious history of this nation's most cherished sports league, a time when the game broke trust with its fans. There was, of course, another strike, just five years later, after the agreement reached in 1982 expired. But the 1987 strike, which featured three weeks of mostly unwatchable "scab games" in which replacement players filled rosters for many teams, essentially lasted only three weeks. And if you were absolutely desperate for football, and had a strong stomach, the "scab games" did offer some entertaining moments, usually determined by how many players for each franchise crossed the picket lines.

Besides selective amnesia, however, probably the biggest reason the 1982 strike is recalled so sparingly this week is because the NFL basically has lived in a golden age for the past 15 years and a work stoppage is a concept totally anathema to most. There is, though, a hint of a storm cloud beyond the currently sunny horizon, one of which NFL fans ought to be more aware.

Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw certainly are eminently aware of it.

According to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement hammered out in 2006, in one of the final acts of the stewardship of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, both the league and the union have the right to terminate the CBA on Nov. 8, 2008, or Nov. 8, 2009. The first of those dates is fewer than 14 months off and, although Goodell has been masterful in dispensing his new and improved brand of justice and at adroitly dealing with every hurdle that has confronted him to this point, the "reopener" possibility on the CBA might be the stiffest test awaiting him.

There remain some small-market owners who feel the extension was too lopsided. Wayne Weaver of Jacksonville, who suggested he would not endorse the deal but then voted for it, has termed it "unsustainable" for the long term and disadvantageous to owners. Certainly, there are some others in the NFL who feel that, desperate to carve out a deal that extended the labor peace the league has enjoyed in recent years, Tagliabue and the negotiators gave away too much of the pie.

Whether that is true or not, the recent CBA extension is a far cry from the five-year accord that ended the 1982 strike, an agreement in which the owners seemed to maintain the upper hand over the rank and file.

Garvey went into the strike seeking 55 percent of the NFL's gross revenues and a pay scale that would have made it more difficult for franchises to release older players. After 57 days, and a lot of players griping about getting back to work, the NFLPA accepted a one-time, $60 million payment to return to work, along with a system that upgraded minimum salaries and provided enhanced benefits for players.

Not until after the 1987 strike, and really until the Reggie White antitrust lawsuit against the league, did the players achieve many of the goals set forth in the '82 stoppage. Of course, one could justifiably argue that, with the 1982 strike, the pendulum began to swing at least a little more toward the players. It has swung so far now, with dramatically increased salaries and benefits, that it is difficult to imagine another strike. Still, given the stipulations of the collective bargaining agreement, there is, in theory, the possibility of such action.

So, in a week that marks the 25th anniversary of a prolonged and hurtful labor action, it actually might be a good history lesson to look back and realize there was a time when the owners and the players nearly defeathered the golden goose.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.