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05 Oct 2007

Year of the Scab Part II

by Mike Tanier

Three weeks ago, we ran an excerpt from "Year of the Scab: The True Story of the 1987 Replacement Games" here at Too Deep Zone. We got a lot of response and quite a few subscribers. If you are still making up your mind, here's another excerpt to help you decide. The rest of the e-book -- well over 50 pages! -- is available for download for the low price of six dollars. You also can get it as a free gift by becoming (or already being) a subscriber to the Premium DVOA Database.

"Year of the Scab" covers the battle between the NFLPA and management, but there's so much more to the story than Gene Upshaw vs. Jack Donlan. The strike and the replacement games were a human drama, and I strove to capture that drama by focusing on a handful of key characters. Mike Ditka may be the most interesting individual in the story: Just two years removed from the Super Bowl, Ditka became so disillusioned with the modern breed of athlete that he turned bitterly on his veterans while embracing the replacements. How Ditka treats those replacements -- one of them in particular, anyway -- at the strike's end is probably the most revealing moment in the story.

But there are other memorable characters and incidents in "Year of the Scab." There's a blow-by-blow recap of the near-riot that broke out in front of Veterans Stadium in Philly before the first replacement game. There's the sad story of Tony Dorsett and the Dallas fans who turned on him. And there's more: shouting matches, angry insults, dirty tactics, lopsided games. Year of the Scab is like "The Empire Strikes Back" of true football stories: The good guys lose, but you'll breathe a sigh of relief when they escape alive.

The next excerpt picks up where the previous one left off. It's the first week of the strike, and all of Sunday's football games have been cancelled. While the Bears assembled their replacement team and the Eagles veterans engaged in guerilla warfare, some Cowboys superstars found an unwelcome surprise in their mailboxes.

The Egos Rule

With the Vikings still holding tryouts and the Dolphins still learning the finer points of huddling, there would be no football on Week 3. As soon as the strike was called, the owners canceled all games slated for September 28 and 29. Television networks had several weeks to prepare for the cancellation and quickly rolled out their alternative lineups. Both NBC and CBS expanded their NFL pregame shows to a full hour to provide comprehensive strike coverage, and to kill time. Then CBS rebroadcast the 1986 Super Bowl while NBC took advantage of their baseball contract and showed a Tigers-Blue Jays game (Cubs-Cardinals in the Midwest). Faced with no Monday Night Football, ABC set their phasers on stun and showed "Star Trek III."

The networks weren't just worried about Week 3. They weren't high on spending top dollar to broadcast low-quality football. Network lawyers poured through their deals with the NFL, looking for loopholes that would allow them to ignore the games (or at least pay less for them). Several major advertisers pulled out rather than endorse a second-rate product. Cowboys president Tex Schramm put feelers out to local networks in the event the big three backed out. Ultimately, though, the networks decided to air the games, for three reasons. First, there was the curiosity factor that was sure to keep ratings acceptable for at least the first week. Second, there was the potential for strike-related shenanigans outside the stadium, particularly in Philadelphia, that would prove both newsworthy and ratings-friendly. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there wasn't much else to show.

The players, meanwhile, hoped to undercut network coverage by organizing some of their own games. They even had a potential broadcast partner: the fledgling FOX network, which was hungry to get into the NFL game. The major networks quickly sicced their lawyers on both FOX and the NFLPA, but it was much ado about nothing. The players lacked the infrastructure to travel, sell tickets, and host games, and attempts to lure fans to pick-up All-Star games in 1982 had flopped badly. The replacement games would be the only games in town, and there would be no pro football on the final Sunday in September.

Fans made the most of the respite. At the Meadowlands, hundreds of Jets fans showed up for a tailgate party hosted by several Jets players. In northern Virginia, a radio station hosted a Skinless Sunday Party that featured Redskins highlight films and a picket sign contest. "It's an excuse for Redskins fans to get together and pretend there's football on," a radio spokesperson said. Giants fans who flew all the way to Miami to see the cancelled Giants-Dolphins got an opportunity to take a $4 tour of palatial new Joe Robbie stadium (in a year filled with management chutzpah, canceling a game then charging four bucks for a tour barely registers). Giants fans who skipped the tour found that their ticket was good for free admission at a local racetrack.

With the stadiums empty, the rancorous war of words echoed. "This fight is over control of football, it's not over money," said Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, newly flush from his stadium tour windfall. "Owners are not going to surrender control of the games to the union." NFL Management Committee Executive Director Jack Donlan announced after Sunday's cancellations that the games would not be made up and players would not get paid; for individual players, that meant losses from $4,000 to $80,000. Upshaw, for his part, toured the country meeting with both labor leaders and his own player reps. Upshaw steeled resolve in a few cities where strike support was wavering, and he secured agreements from union workers in all 28 NFL cities to bolster picket lines and disrupt replacement contests. "We will haunt those games," Upshaw promised. He even added a hot-button accusation to the players' laundry list of charges against management: The league was allegedly shopping broadcast rights in Apartheid-torn South Africa. "I just noticed today at the airport that the NFL is not only trying to break us but also the people in South Africa by offering the services of NFL football to South Africa. We don't like that and we'll have something to say about that at a later date."

With Upshaw, Braman, Robbie and others on their soapboxes, the networks had plenty of soundbytes for their hour-long pre-no-game shows. The most interesting soundbytes came from Ditka. While preparing the Spare Bears to face the Eagles, Ditka kept one eye on his veterans. Player rep Mike Singletary hoped to organize full workouts when the regulars weren't picketing, but several big names -- Doug Flutie, Richard Dent, William Perry -- ignored the practice sessions. Singletary toyed with the idea of fining his teammates. Ditka gloated: His prediction of less-than-full compliance with union-run practices came true in a hurry. "We have some of the laziest guys who are non-motivated in the world," Ditka said of the veterans he led to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl two years earlier. "There is no togetherness. It's all for themselves. The egos rule."

Ditka didn't hold back. "The better word in the dictionary calls it 'prima donna.' She don't dance on this field, she don't sing in this theater. But she's around, if you let her be." As for his replacements: "They're a good bunch of kids. They work hard, they keep their moths shut and their appreciative. That in itself is different."

Ditka went so far as to suggest that teams might tell the regulars to "stick it" and keep the replacements for the rest of the season. His opinions were heard loud and clear at the veterans' practice site, where 36 of the 45 regulars worked out for no pay while the quiet, appreciative replacements earned the prorated rookie minimum -- about $3,200 per week, no guarantees -- to represent the Chicago Bears.

Annuity Blues

Randy White was the highest-profile player to officially renounce the strike at its outset. He and a handful of teammates -- including fellow defensive lineman Don Smerek -- had no intention of picketing. When White and Smerek drove to work in White's pickup truck on September 24, they were met by a picket line.

Veteran beat writer Mickey Spagnola (no relation to the Eagles player rep) recounted the tale last year on the Cowboys' Web site:

Well, the picket line was in progress, and the guys made White, of all people, wait patiently for an opening to drive through. Finally, White, nicknamed "Manster" for very good reasons, crossed the sidewalk into The Ranch entrance. But by then, Tony Dorsett and a couple of the other guys walked in front of White's truck. There was a standoff. White was burning. Know that Smerek once suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. And let me tell you, Randy White is the last guy you want burning, especially back in the day. The game of chicken was on.

Finally, White smashed the clutch in and raced his engine, sticking his head out the window. He then briefly popped the clutch. The truck slightly lurched forward. Teammates, you know. This was ugly. They were ready to go at it. That's what labor differences can instigate.

Dorsett and gang finally moved. White raced down the driveway to the players' entrance, tires smoking.

Despite his willingness to play chicken with a teammate in a pickup truck, Dorsett's resolve would soon waver. He would join White in crossing the picket lines. So would Ed Jones. So would quarterback Danny White, who on the first day of the strike announced, "I support the team. I'm not a supporter of union or management. It's a one-day-at-a-time deal for me. If at some point my family becomes more important than the team, then I might come back."

The two Whites, Dorsett and many other veterans received a letter from team president Tex Schramm on September 22, the first day of the strike. "I sent him a letter pointing out some things about certain parts of his contract," Schramm said of his letter to Dorsett. "I won't go into the details. It involves a lot of money." The letter indicated that many Cowboys veterans received annuities as part of their compensation. These annuities were a huge part of the players' retirement portfolios, and they were worth millions of dollars. Some players, like Dorsett, even had real estate options included in their contracts. Schramm's letter to the veterans reminded them that if they weren't on the Cowboys active roster on October 15, they wouldn't receive their annuity payments.

The annuity gambit explained Danny White's day-to-day statements: the closer it came to mid-October, the more likely he was to cross the picket line (White was also in debt as the result of a bad investment in a manufacturing firm). At a time when the Cowboys seemed out-of-step with most other organizations, Schramm still had some surprises up his sleeve. The annuity system essentially slapped golden handcuffs on the team's best players, who would be risking much more than a few paychecks if they stayed out on strike.

It didn't take long for other veterans to reach the same conclusions as Randy White. On September 30, a Cowboys spokesman announced that Danny White would cross the picket line. Dorsett was soon to follow. Neither player was immediately available for comment. Fullback Timmy Newsome, Dorsett's friend, said that the running back knew of the annuity situation at the start of the strike but tried to hold firm as long as he could. "I don't think there's any question he is being forced to return," Newsome said. "There is a choice, but it would be a very difficult choice, to say the least." In effect, Dorsett played two games of chicken in just a few days: one against an angry teammate holding the clutch of a pickup truck, once again a cagey exec holding his pension over a trashcan.

Not every Cowboys veteran was wooed back by Schramm's letter. "I've already considered that money as being gone," player rep Doug Cosbie said. "That's not going to affect my decision at all." Cosbie said that the defections didn't hurt morale on the picket lines, and that most Cowboys veterans were as determined as ever. Still, the replacement Cowboys -- with the two Whites, Jones, Dorsett, Smerek and others -- were starting to look a lot more like the real deal than they guys on the picket line.

With so many familiar faces in camp, Tom Landry had no trouble endorsing the replacement games. While Buddy Ryan was waiving off the games as "not real." Landry suggested that refund-seeking fans should reconsider. "I would pay it," he said if he would ask to spend money to see his replacement Cowboys. "I think it will be fun."

Fun, indeed. The All Pro-laden Cowboys would face the replacement Jets in Week 4. Then, if the strike continued, they would host the Eagles. By then, Ryan may have memorized a few of his players' names, or at least uniform numbers.

(For the full text of Year of the Scab, available now at the FO store. If you subscribe to the Premium DVOA database, you'll find a link to download Year of the Scab on the main premium database page.)

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 05 Oct 2007

17 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2007, 1:33pm by Saints_just_playin_for_draft_picks


by Will Allen (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 3:30pm

Fielding replacement players for part of the season is one of the worst things the owners ever did to their product's reputation, and the NFL's brand.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 3:51pm

Is it me, or does this make Ditka seem like a total tool?

The guy who's going around today blasting Upshaw for 'abandoning' the retirees is the guy who was blasting the striking players (and, by extension, Upshaw) for trying to make sure they wouldn't be in the very situation he's preaching about now?

I change my mind; I used to think that taking care of the old-timers is something that the owners & players should pay for together. Now, I think it should come straight out of Ditka's wallet.

by mattymatty (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 4:13pm

As if there weren't already too many to count, yet another reason to hate the Dallas Cowboys.

by PhillyCWC (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 4:49pm

Re 2 - you're just now coming to that conclusion?

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 5:02pm

Saw an amusing piece on this on ESPN the other day, featuring Rick Neuheisel (or New Weasel as we Seattlites and probably Colorado fans too call him) who had QBed for SD during the strike. He quoted Howie Long, who returned for the last scab game, warning the no-name OLs across from him: "Any of you SOBs go for my knees, I'll hit you so hard it will kill your families." Good times.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 6:47pm

Enjoyed the article, but that John Q TV ad is NOT work friendly!

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 7:36pm

#1 But Will, the NFL recovered pretty quickly and managed to eclipse the other major pro team sports inside a decade. How long did the damage last? 2 years, max, in my mind (I did not have cable back then and was limited to Jets/Giants games each week, so my scope is pretty narrow). Whereas NHL may never recover from its lockout and where David Stern once sat atop a golden mountain, the NBA seems just so crappy to me these days.

#2 George, this somehow surprises you?

#3 Matty, save room on your bandwagon for me. The 70s scarred me for life and it wasn't the music or clothing--it was "America's Team." Pardon me while I hurl.

by mshray (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2007 - 8:50pm

Another great article in the series.

Bobman, Howie stole that line from Diner. Billy (Timothy Daly) and Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) are in adjoining holding cells after getting arrested with Fenwick (Kevin Bacon). They're talking through the bars, and a scary looking guy in Billy's cell keeps invading his personal space until finally Billy looks the guy right in the eye and says, "I'll hit you so hard, I'll kill your whole family." Diner came out in 1982.

My favorite stadium banner of all time came from the '87 strike. The Chargers lost their first game, and then won 8 straight (the only team other than Wash. to go 3-0 with replacements). They beat the then mighty LA Raiders in the Coliseum for the 1st time during the strike and concluded the streak and a season sweep of the Raiders with a 16-14 home win. They had not had a winning record since '82 and now all of a sudden they have the best record in the NFL. The next game was on Monday night in Seattle. I had just moved to SD after 7 years in Seattle. My new housemate was from Denver, so while we were glad the Chargers had inflicted two defeats on the hated Raiders, we weren't particularly intersted in seeing them win any more games. Here's where the banner comes in. Early in the game the MNF cameras scanned the upper deck of the Kingdome, and possibly the longest banner I've ever seen, easily covering at least three sections read: "GOODNIGHT CINDERELLA! IT'S MIDNIGHT AND THE BALL IS OVER!!!"

The Chargers lost that game, sending them into a six-game season-ending losing streak & they missed the playoffs. Goodnight indeed!

Which reminds me, has any other NFL team ever had winning & losing streaks of 6 or more game in the same season?

by Travis (not verified) :: Sat, 10/06/2007 - 12:26am

Which reminds me, has any other NFL team ever had winning & losing streaks of 6 or more game in the same season?

The 1994 Giants won their first 3, lost their next 7, and won their final 6 games. There may be others.

by Mike T (not verified) :: Sat, 10/06/2007 - 12:46am


There are a lot of characters in Year of The Scab, but Mike Ditka is probably the main character, and one of the main themes in the story is his gradual loss of credibility over the course of the 1987 season. I don't want to give too much away, and many Bears fans probably remember the story, but he does something terrible in the final week of the strike.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sat, 10/06/2007 - 6:32am

mshray, Arrgh, it serves me right for having read the screenplay but never seeing the movie. I wonder if Costco has it in a boxed set along with Tin Men and Avalon. I'll finally get to see the scene with the pre-engagement Colts quiz that I once threatened my wife with.....

What can I say, those Seattlites are a literate bunch!

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Sat, 10/06/2007 - 12:01pm

Well, bobman, I didn't say it was a fatal error, just that it was about the worst thing they had done. No, they didn't lose a season, but having replacement player games count in the standings was really terrible. The NBA's problems aren't due to any grievous errors by the NBA. They just have some inherent disadvantages with their product, compared to the NFL.

by Sergio (not verified) :: Sat, 10/06/2007 - 1:04pm

I just bought the book; I'm about half-way through. I don't want to sound like a shill, but you have to buy this thing. Mike's writing is excellent (save a couple of excedent commas here and there) and he's conveying the story in a very realistic manner.

by Mikey Benny (not verified) :: Sun, 10/07/2007 - 1:39am

Re: 9

If memory serves, after 6, 12 and 16 games, The 1990 Minnesota Vikings were 0-6, 6-6 and 6-10 respectively.

That, my friends, is streakiness.

by Mikey Benny (not verified) :: Sun, 10/07/2007 - 1:41am

Oops, sorry, just doublechecked my stats... the 1990 Vikings started 1-5, not 0-6... but they went on to 6-6 and 6-10. Forgive me, I was going strictly off memory, and I'm not even a Vikings fan. Still had to be a frustrating season for Vikes fans.

by PaulH (not verified) :: Mon, 10/08/2007 - 12:44am

Re: #2

I don't know if that makes Ditka a hypocrite or not.

I'm going to preface all of this by saying that I'm not an expert on the NFL / NFLPA relationship, or anything even close to that. So keep that in mind.

That said, just because there was a strike doesn't mean they were striking over the problems that exist today. Maybe they were -- again, not an expert -- but they could have been striking over entirely different things, and perhaps Ditka disagreed with that. Pensions / health care is only one of many issues that the NFL and the NFLPA constantly fight over.

That's what I always find interesting about all of this stuff.

Obviously the money is there, as many of these guys are getting tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed money. But it's all about the current moment. The way the NFL compensation system is structured, it's essentially a get rich quick scheme with no future in it. Sure you can make millions and millions of dollars in just a few years, but you have no long-term guarantees of any sort, and the expected career life of a football player is extremely short.

You can make the argument that in that sense the compensation system is way off. Instead of guys getting massive amounts of money now, let them get smaller amounts of money now but long-term benefits guaranteed.

For example, have a 30% tax on all money paid to a player that exceeds two million dollars in a single year. Take all of that money and put it into a trust, and use that money to fund a pension system that guarantees every vested player -- you could define vested as someone who has played at least four years, or however many, in the league -- a monthly check of $5,000 and health insurance for life. Also, if you wanted, you could set it up to where all money paid out that must be returned in the form of fines, forfeitures, etc. go into the trust as well.

I know that probably wouldn't cover the current retirees -- and I have no clue as to what to do about them -- but that would take care of the players in the NFL today. At the very least, it would assure that we don't still have this problem 30 years from now.

I know that's going to piss off a lot of guys getting tens of millions of dollars without playing a snap, but at some point I'd like to hope we can put those considerations aside and get a better system for all players.

Maybe I'm an idiot, but it seems dumb to see guys making ungodly amounts of money today (houses on Cribs, ten luxury cars sitting in the garage, etc.) and then twenty years later they are completely broke, apparently disabled, no health insurance, no money coming in, etc.

At some point, it only makes sense to forgo current consumption (especially when you are still going to be making massive amounts of money) in lieu of guaranteeing acceptable amounts of future compensation.

Makes sense to me, but maybe I just don't get it.

by Saints_just_playin_for_draft_picks (not verified) :: Thu, 10/11/2007 - 1:33pm

You're forgetting the basic tennet of NFL finances. Money now is better than more money later. More money later isn't yet in your hands, and could be in jeopardy out of your control. Personally, I think that the onnus is on the union to care for the players. They should increase the union dues, and have the union create and administer a retirement savings and health care system that covers the union players for life.
(Paragraph break)

There should be three basic benifits, aside from the collective bargaining protection, from being in the union. (1) Disability insurance coverage from the moment that the first practice contract is signed for a football player. Practice is dangerous too, and there has been more than one career cut short by injury or even death in training. (2) Multi-tiered vesting in retirement savings (i.e. 20% for first year, 40% for second year, 75% for third year, and 100% after). (3) Healthcare coverage in the form of major medical for the first three years (and the following ten years for three year or less washouts) and lifetime total coverage for four year or longer veterans.
(paragraph break)
The NFL isn't concerned with individual players, they have shown that over the long haul. They are interested in competitive balance. Individual teams are more concerned with individual players, but, only in the short term, and in how it affects their investment. The Union is the entity that has a vested interest in players, therefore, this function should fall to them. If they want to arrange for the next collective bargaining agreement to include provisions for the individual teams, or the NFL as a whole to make a scheduled contribution to a fund (similar to the VEBA that the UAW is starting to use with the Big 3) then I think that's a good way to go. It keeps the money coming for the retirees, it keeps the liability off the books for the NFL and the individual teams, and it shows that everyone can work together for the long-term betterment of the players.
(paragraph break)
My biggest gripe is with the NCAA and college football. Given how much money college football makes for the various big schools and even some of the smaller ones, I don't see how they can justify not providing similar protections to the student athletes that go out there and sacrifice their bodies for the various programs. Yeah, a handfull of students from each team gets a full ride, and another group gets partials, but, there are a lot of players out there that don't get anything.
(paragraph break)
Each year, there are many injuries that are serious enough to affect the athlete for the rest of their life, often times ending their chances of a professional sports career, or even leading a normal life. The colleges rarely, if ever, do anything more than cursory gestures to see to the needs of these individuals. I say, make each college provide insurance to the players at the very least that will provide for them in case of injury, including, but not limited to, full medical care for their injury, recovery, and rehabilitation, long term care if needed, and some sort of income gurantee for those that are too injured to be productive members of society. The colleges earned enough on their backs, how about at least giving a little back?

(for some reason, the preview doesn't show my paragraph breaks happening, I'm sorry if it all runs together and put the fake ones in there for readability)