As the lockout situation continues to move at the speed of molasses, we're left to wonder if we may end up facing our worst nightmare, the cancellation of the 2011 season. "We sit here at a time of uncertainty and say, 'When will football be played?'" said NFLPA president Kevin Mawae. "My answer to you as fans is I don't know. My hope to you as the players association president is that I believe that we will play in 2011 but under what system I do not know."
It's not like it couldn't happen. The '94 World Series was cancelled because of a players strike. The entire 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled because of a lockout. Even the NFL lost games during both the 1982 and 1987 seasons. Will the 2011 NFL season join that inauspicious group?
They say those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. So let's look at the history of the NFL's labor disputes and see how we got to this point to begin with.
In the really old days of the NFL, when players still wore leather helmets, played both ways, and three receiver sets were considered a radical idea, the NFL practiced what was called the "reserve list". Basically it meant that when a player's contract was up, they were free to renegotiate a new contract with the same team, which is another way of saying they were free to accept whatever they were offered and be grateful. If the player had the audacity to ask for more money they were put on a "reserve list" and had to sit around hoping their contract got sold or traded to another team. In other words, they were a lot like Carson Palmer but with less money.
In 1947 the league adopted the "1-year option" rule. So instead of being put on the reserve list, players who couldn't come to an agreement with their current team would resign for 1 year and then would be free to sign with another team if they were able to find one that was willing to sign such an ungrateful player.
The rest of how we got to this point after the jump.
In 1962 R.C. Owens became the first player to take advantage of this new rule, even though it had been around for 16 years, and left the 49ers (ingrate) to sign with the Colts. Afraid about what this would do to the competitive balance, commissioner Pete Rozelle instituted the "Rozelle Rule" in 1963 which allowed the commissioner to compensate teams losing players by taking something of equal value, usually draft picks, from the players new team and giving it to his old one. The problem was that few teams wanted to sign a player only to find out it was going to cost them two future first round draft picks.
Imagine if we had that rule today. The 49ers need help in their secondary so they decide to sign Nnamdi Asomugha. Realizing he might be the best CB in football, Rodger Goodell tells the 49ers that they have to give the Raiders their next two first round picks as well as Shawntae Spencer, Terell Brown, and pay for Al Davis to have a face lift to compensate the Raiders for their loss.
Predictably, only 34 players changed teams over the next 12 years until a court ruled in 1976 that the "Rozelle Rule" unfairly restricted trade, much the same having your car booted restricts your ability to drive it. Teams losing Free agents were still compensated based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement they had in place, only the commissioner didn't decide what that compensation was.
Then came the 1982 strike. For 57 dark days there was no football. The players demanded 55% of the revenue and a minimum salary. The owners told them where they could shove it. In all, seven weeks of football were lost before a compromise was finally reached and nine games of the season were salvaged, with the Redskins eventually winning the Super Bowl. Strangely, the most important concession won by the players didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time. For the first time in the history of the NFL, every player knew exactly what everyone else was making.
Tom "I am the super agent" Condon, then a Guard with the Chiefs, found out his backup was making $65,000 a year, or $15,000 more than he was getting. The Vikings starting QB, Tommy Kramer who threw for 3,912 yards in 1981, was earning $100,000 a year while 49ers backup QB Guy Benjamin, who only threw for 171 yards, was earning $130,000. All across the league there were players finding out they weren't being paid their fair market value. After that, salary negotiations would never be the same.
Of course there still was no true free agency, so five years later brought the 1987 strike. But this time the owners were prepared. After losing the first week of the season to the strike, rosters were quickly refilled with players cut during training camp and augmented with 89 players who crossed the picket line such as Jets DE Mark "I have ants in my pants" Gastineau, Cowboys DT Randy White, Seahawks WR Steve Largent, and 49ers QB Joe Montana.
In the history of working unions, there has never been a stranger strike. Players earning as little as $1,000 a game pretended to be elite NFL players while NFL players worth over $1 million pretended to be blue collar workers marching the picket line. Scabs are never looked upon favorably. They're often grouped with tax collectors, meter maids, and DMV employees, yet the fans still turned out for the games and weren't very sympathetic towards the players plight. Reluctantly, after three games played by scabs, the union gave in and once again the Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl.
Realizing the strike didn't work, the union took their case to the courts. When the courts ruled the players had no case since they were represented by a union, they decertified. Fearing another strike, the owners instituted "Plan B" which allowed teams to protect 37 players on their team while allowing the rest to be free agents. And to think players today are upset about the "Franchise tag".
In 1989 eight players, led by Jets RB Freeman McNeil, sued the NFL's "Plan B" saying it violated US antitrust laws. This time the federal jury ruled in favor of the players, awarding damages to four of them. With several other lawsuits in the works, in 1993 the owners finally gave into the players demands for free agency in return for a salary cap.
So that brings us to 2011, only instead of a strike we're looking at a lockout. Right now the players get around 55-58% of the revenue after the owners take $1 billions off the top. The owners want to increase that amount to $2 billion but also want to increase the overall size of the revenue pie by increasing the regular season to 18 games. They also want to put in a rookie salary cap while the players are using this opportunity to argue for better retirement benefits. They don't appear to be very close and neither side seems very willing to budge. If the past is any indicator, we will lose games. Maybe even all of them. But there is one thing I've learned from looking at the past. I'm going to run over to Vegas and put everything I can on the Redskins to win it all.