Empty Sundays

TAKING SIDES

IF YOU ABSOLUTELY must watch professional football this fall, you'd better start learning Canadian Football League rules. The way negotiations for a settlement to the two-week old NFL players' strike are going, games from the Great White North are going to be the only Sunday TV fare for quite a while.

The two sides' positions are as firmly held as they are distant. NFL management is offering the National Football League Players Association a five-year salary and bonus package worth $1.6 billion. Although the players like the $1.6 billion figure, they want it paid out over four years. They also want it distributed according to a negotiated wage scale. And most important, the players want to begin sharing in the owners' television contract receipts, which amount to a cool $2.1 billion dollars over the next five years.

The NFL owners say that there's something un-American about the union demands, that the players and their pinkish lawyer, Ed Garvey, are out to undermine free enterprise itself. But the owners bowls of socialism have a decidedly hollow ring. In the first place, NFL stadiums are built and maintained at public expense. Most of the players themselves are trained for their NFL futures at state funded universities. And the owners enjoy a virtual monopoly in their sport as a result of a generous anti-trust exemption granted them by Congress--and they are currently lobbying the Senate for an expansion of this sweet deal.

The owners' real reason for red-baiting the union is that the players' proposal, if written into a contract, would constitute a double invasion of the owners' sacrosanct "managerial prerogatives." As the NFL's chief negotiator, Jack Donlan, told CBS Radio: "We're talking about money. They're talking about control."

The wage scale idea would give the union collective power over the size of player contracts--something that used to be solely between each individual owner and player. And giving the players a slice of the television bonanza forces the owners to bargain with the networks on behalf of the union as well as themselves--providing a potential rationale for direct player participation in negotiations with the broadcasters.

Management is so jittery about such a possible union incursion on its turf that it's willing to make a fairly generous deal on salaries if the players will only give up on their demand for a say in the team's operation. Indeed, that's exactly how most American companies and unions have gotten along since World War II. As long as the union agrees to let management manage, bosses will "deliver the goods" in the form of higher wages.

But the NFL players aren't like most unions. Because they possess extremely rare skills, the pro gridders can put forward a much tougher bargaining position than most industrial workers. It's easier to replace a Pittsburgh steel worker than a Pittsburgh Steeler. Moreover, the players are a small, relatively homogeneous group whose individual experiences in relating to management are quite similar, all these factors contribute to the remarkable solidarity of their union.

In addition to the determined union however, there is another, as yet little noticed, factor in the strike: the United States Football League. The rival league was formed this past summer with franchises in NFL cities like Washington, Boston and Chicago. If the NFL strike drags on, the USFL, whose season starts in March, could capture the market for televised football--especially if a few NFL stars decide to sign contracts to play in the fledgling circuit. That disastrous possibility may eventually convince the owners that conflict with their players is much more costly than cooperation.