The Super Bowl is now history and it is time for the National Football League owners and the National Football League Players Association to play the real “Big Game” of the season–the Collective Bargaining Agreement contest pitting the 32 owners against the more than 1,500 players on the teams.
The clock runs out on the present CBA between NFL owners and players on March 3 and it is presumed that NFL owners will lockout the players on March 4 and with that comes no free agency, no mini-camps, no organized team activities and if the lockout stretches into the summer, no training camp and the possibility of the loss of regular season contests. There will be a college draft in April, the only function of the off-season NFL calendar untouched by a lockout.
Throughout history, the NFL owners have beaten the players in labor negotiations, although the players do get enormous salary opportunities. Football contracts are not guaranteed; however, and medical benefits run out five years following the conclusion of a player’s career. Former NFL players whose careers ended prior to 1993 have over time become the real losers in the strikes of 1974, 1982 and 1987. The pre-1993 players pensions are below poverty level and the health benefit package is non-existent. There are discarded players under the age of 65 who depend on social security insurance and Medicare.
The National Football League Players Association leadership should have followed the example set by Marvin Miller for the Major League Baseball Players Association after assuming the position of Executive Director in 1966 and addressed life after football.
The NBA Players Association had Lawrence Fleischer before Marvin Miller became a household name. Fleisher was the President of the National Basketball Players Association and was recruited to the post in 1962 by New Jersey-native and Boston Celtics star Tommy Heinsohn. Fleisher got his players a pension plan, a minimum salary and a disability plan. Fleisher and Miller were the guys who the NFL players needed but NFL players settled for a different type of leadership.
The National Basketball Players Association came into existence in 1954, but it would not be until 1964 that the players would flex their collective muscle and threaten the owners with a work stoppage in demands were not met. The nationally televised NBA All-Star Game in Boston almost did not come off for two reasons. There was a blizzard and there was an All-Star vote to boycott the game without a new collective bargaining agreement.
“That was the All-Star Game in which the association was finally recognized as a bargaining unit,” said Heinsohn, who was the head of the group and a Boston Celtics player at the time. “There was a new Commissioner, Walter Kennedy. Maurice Podoloff, who had been the Commissioner, refused to meet with us. Gave us lip service at times and just infuriated the players.
“It all came to a head at this All-Star Game because of Walter Kennedy. We met with Kennedy in Stamford, Connecticut and he promised to give us a hearing in front of all the Governors and we brought in all the officers in October, 1963 and they had all of us cool our heels in the hotel lobby and never did see us.
Key issues for NBA players went abehond simple money issues. “It had to do with playing conditions,” said Heinsohn. “We didn’t have trainers, every team did not have a trainer. Playing on a Saturday night and be expected to take an all night train and play an afternoon game on Sunday on national television.
“All things regarding the game, not just money issues” said Heinsohn. “The key issue was the pension plan. At that 64 All-Star, there was a blizzard and players were straggling in and we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. But all the All-Star players finally agreed when they arrived that they weren’t going to play unless they (the owners) agreed to give us a pension plan and meet all the other demands.”
There was tension underneath the Boston Garden stands and in the team’s locker rooms as the players decided to strike the NBA’s midseason showcase. The players and the NBA association reps were going to take a stand and meant business. Kennedy was furious but met with the players anyway.
“Walt Kennedy came into the locker room after the last player came into the locker room at 5 p.m. We had a meeting and the players signed onto the procedure we recommended. We told Walter Kennedy what was going to happen and he went berserk because all the owners had gone out to dinner in the blizzard and he could not round them all up. He was put under the gun to get the ownership to meet. We went into the locker room, each team had its own locker room, but we assembled in one locker room, all the All-Star players.
“At that point, some of the owners tried to get in but we gave instructions to the police not to let anybody in. We sent word in to some owners, to (Lakers owner) Bob Short who sent word into Elgin Baylor that if Baylor didn’t get his ass out of there that he would be done in the game.
“Elgin Baylor told him to go (expletive deleted) himself. Finally, Walter Kennedy came in and said guys I can’t reach all of these people. They are all over the place. But I will give you my word that you will have what you want. And he lived up to his word.”
That price scale in the 21st century includes room for players to make $14 million a year under the salary cap. The entire NBA might not have been worth $14 million in 1964.
“Yeah, they made some money,” said Heinsohn of 1964 era players. “But everybody knew that this was not going to carry them the rest of their lives. They had to do something else. The current player, if they are smart, they don’t have to work another day of their lives. Particularly some of the collective bargaining things with the severance pay that they get now and the pre-retirement plan they have and then the pension plan that they have. That was not possible back when I was playing. We had a different outlook and had fun playing.
The 1964 pension plan settlement spelled out some specific terms. All the players in the league at the time had to put in five years before they qualified for a pension. All players who spent five years in the Basketball Association of American (1946-49) and the merged National Basketball league-Basketball Association of America, aka, the NBA from 1949-65, received pension. But those who played less than five years were on the outside looking in. In 2007, NBA Commissioner David Stern and the NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter decided to take care of BAA-NBA players who performed prior to 1965 and were on rosters for either three or four years. The 2007 deal, which was retroactive to 2005, received $3,600 a month for each year of service.
The NBA and NBPA took care of 40 players who were left out in the cold. Former NFLPA members who played in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and onward are waiting for the association to look after their needs. It doesn’t appear in the current NFL-NFLPA negotiations that anyone is looking out for the “discarded” players.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (editor’s note: this piece was edited for length).