The Superbowl Is Over, But the Biggest Fight in Football Is About to Kick off
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In 1968, threatened by the possibility that the players would join the powerful Teamsters union, the owners said they would recognize the NFLPA if the Teamsters were rejected. The players did so, but the owners still refused to bargain with the union. The players voted to strike. The owners countered by declaring a lockout. A few days later the owners relented, but the concessions won by the players were modest. According to Wikipedia, the owners agreed to contribute about $1.5 million to the pension fund but maintained the then current minimum salaries of $9,000 for rookies, $10,000 for veterans and $50 per exhibition game. The owners refused to allow for independent arbitration.
In 1970, after the NFL and the AFL merge, their two players’ unions also merged. After a brief lockout, the players went on strike. They returned two days later when the owners threatened to cancel the season. The players did, however, gain the right to bargain through their own agents with the clubs, impartial arbitration but only for injury grievances, some improvements in basic salaries and pensions, and dental care. Following negotiations, many union player representatives were let go by their teams.
In 1974 the players again went on strike, this time focusing on the hated Rozelle Rule that allowed any team that lost a free agent to another team to receive something of equal value from that team. Few teams were willing to risk signing a high-profile free agent only to see their own rosters depleted.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle imposed the rule unilaterally in 1963. Instructively, that was the year after he negotiated the NFL’s first broadcast contract with CBS, $9.3 million for two years. Each team began the season with $332,000 in the bank. That was greater than most teams’ payrolls at the time, guaranteeing a profit to all teams even before they sold a single ticket or played a single game. Flush with cash, the team owners could have started a bidding war for free agents, so Rozelle all but eliminated free agency. The agreement by the NFL owners to share the revenues equally also opened up the specter of future Green Bay Packers: teams in small cities with a non-profit, community ownership structure. So in 1963 the League also adopted a rule banning further non-profits.
In 1974 the players rallied under the banner, “No Freedom, No Football” but gave up six weeks later. They again turned to the courts for help.
In 1977 John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts became the first NFL player to successfully defeat the League owners in court. Along with 35 other NFL players, he challenged the validity of the Rozelle Rule. The owners argued that the rule was part of a collective bargaining agreement and therefore exempt from antitrust law. The court disagreed, concluding the Rule was not the product of good faith bargaining but had been forced upon a weak players union.
Pursuant to the court decision, the owners reached a settlement with the union. Impartial arbitration of all grievances was implemented. Some free agent restrictions were ended. But the League’s new version of free agency was almost as restrictive as its first. From 1977 to 1987 only one played changed clubs out of the thousands of free agents who were eligible.
In 1982, the players again took on free agency. They went on strike for 57 days. The owners refused to budge. One reason was that their TV contracts with the networks, which provided about 60 percent of the owners' income, guaranteed they would be paid whether games were played or not. The players capitulated.