1987 NFL Players Union Strike
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Forerunner: The 1982 Strike

In 1982, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) went on strike during the season. The league lost Weeks 3-10. No games were rescheduled. The principal sticking point in negotations for renewal of the collective bargaining agreement was players' demand for 55% of the gross revenue of the clubs. A major reason the owners refused to budge was that their TV contracts with the networks (which provide about 60% of owners' income) guaranteed they would be paid whether games were played or not. As a result, the players capitulated without gaining very much.

When the 1982 pact expired five years later, both sides girded for another strike. However, the TV networks had learned their lesson and renegotiated contracts that required them to pay only for games actually played. Player salaries had gone up considerably, thanks in large part to the existence of the United States Football League (USFL), which played a spring schedule from 1983-1985.

What Did the Players Want?

The players' primary demand in 1987 was unfettered free agency. (The so-called "Rozelle Rule" had been in place since 1976. It awarded compensation to a player's former team when he signed with a new team.) When no progress was made in the negotiations after two weeks of regular season play, the players voted to strike on September 22. The league responded by cancelling the games of September 27. (One of the games lost was the Dolphins' sold out opening of new Joe Robbie Stadium against the Giants.) However, the owners had secretly prepared a tactic not employed in 1982: replacement players.

Teams Prepare for a Strike

Clubs frantically rebuilt rosters for the resumption of the regular schedule on October 4 by hiring retired players, recently-cut players, minor league players, and undrafted college players. Some front offices and coaching staffs did a much better job of fielding competitive teams on short notice.

  • Redskins GM Bobby Beathard began assembling a replacement team well before the strike. As a result, coach Joe Gibbs actually cut some of the 50 players who reported for practice and went 3-0 during the strike on the way to a Super Bowl victory. By contrast, the Bears counted just 21 bodies when practice resumed.
  • Eagles' head coach Buddy Ryan made no secret of his disdain for replacement players. "We might have the worst bunch of guys ever seen together as football team." He apparently wanted to show his veterans that he was on their side. Not surprisingly, the "Scab Eagles" went 0-3 and Ryan's veterans didn't make the playoffs when they returned.

Union Holdouts

Some veteran players decided not to strike. Among them were Giant LB Lawrence Taylor, Saints CB Reggie Sutton, Bill QB Gary Hogeboom, Dallas defensive linemen Randy White and "Too Tall" Jones, Jet DT Mark Gastineau, and Cardinal All-Pro S Leonard Smith. Other highly-paid stars came back after one or two weeks on strike. Included in this group were the 49er trio of QB Joe Montana, RB Roger Craig, and WR Dwight Clark, Seahawk WR Steve Largent, Steeler WR Lynn Swann, Cowboy RB Tony Dorsett, and Raiders DT Howie Long. 145 regular players had returned by the second week's games, topped by 17 with the St. Louis Cardinals. However, Washington, Chicago, and San Diego played all three strike weeks without any of their veterans crossing the picket lines. (The only Dolphin player to cross was DB Liffort Hobley from LSU.)

Fans Express Their Views

Fans in NFL cities reacted differently to the replacement games and players.

  • In Philadelphia, a strong union town, only 4,074 watched the "Spare Bears" clobber the home team 35-3 on October 4. Furthermore, many fans joined the striking Eagles to berate both squads as they entered the stadium.
  • A "crowd" of 4,919 assembled the second week in Detroit, another union stronghold.
  • 29,745 at the Superdome chanted "Stay on strike" as their new Saints team took a 27-0 halftime lead against the Los Angeles Rams in the first week.
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  • The largest attendance each week was: Week 1 – 38,494 in Denver; Week 2 – 61,230 in Denver (Monday night), Week 3 – 60,415 in Dallas (Monday night).
  • Average attendance increased after the first week but was nowhere near pre-strike levels: Week 1 – 16,949; Week 2 – 27,627; Week 3 – 26,063. Almost all clubs offered ticket holders refunds for replacement games.

Who Were the Replacement Players?

The replacement players, who earned $4,000 a week, fit no particular profile. Some samples.

  • Lionel Vital, who ran a grocery store in Louisiana before the strike, became the starting RB for the Redskins.
  • The Giants signed 12 players from the semipro Connecticut Giants.
  • 37-year-old Jim Zorn, playing in the Canadian Football League, contacted the Seahawks, whom he had QBed for many years, but ended up in Tampa as backup to another 37-year-old, John Reeves, who had started for the Eagles and Bengals in the 70s. The third Buc QB was Jeff George.
  • DE Egypt Allen, who had spent time in the Bears training camp, returned to the team in a black limo the first day of replacement team practice.
  • Sean Payton, future Saints Coach of the Year, played QB for Mike Ditka's Bears. One of his teammates was S Mike Stoops, now coach of the Arizona Wildcats.
  • A future Saint player, K John Carney, who was not on an NFL roster before the strike, kicked for Tampa Bay.
  • QB Vince Evans had been out of football since the USFL folded. He started the first replacement game for Oakland despite the fact that former starter Mark Wilson suited up. Vince passed and ran for 311 yards in total offense.
  • The Bears traded QB Doug Flutie to New England while he was on strike. Doug led his new team to a 21-7 win over Houston during the third week of replacement games.
  • In Week 1, St. Louis LB Peter Noga returned an interception 60 yards for a TD wearing the same number as his striking brother Niko.

The Union Capitulates

Realizing they had no chance of winning concessions, the union's representatives voted to return to work on Thursday, October 15. However, the owners refused to allow the last holdouts to play the following Sunday, costing them another paycheck. (Personal note: I was returning from a meeting in Washington on Sunday, October 18, the day of the last replacement games. I remember watching the Saints-Bears on TV in the Atlanta airport. Across the aisle from me on the flight to N.O. was Morton Anderson, the Saints representative returning from the NFLPA meeting in New York. I guess he was saving money while on strike by flying coach.)

What Did the Owners Gain?

While the strikers lost an average of $15,000 per game (approximately $80 million in salaries altogether), the average owner's profit per game actually rose from $800,000 before the work stoppage to $921,000 during the strike. However, this gain was wiped out by the fact that the league had to refund $60 million to the networks over the next two seasons for the missed weekend of play, the reduced ratings, and the resulting decline in advertising revenues.

The Ultimate Outcome

On the day the strike ended, the NFLPA filed an antitrust suit in Federal Court challenging the college draft, restraints on free agency, and other practices alleged to be anti-competitive. (The NBA players had filed a similar suit one month earlier.) The Court of Appeals ultimately rejected the suit on a technicality. NFLPA disbanded, then reformed in 1989 in order to file a new suit that ultimately prevailed at a jury trial. This led to a labor agreement that permitted less restrictive free agency in return for salary caps tied to a formula based on players' share of total league revenues. So the union, while losing the 1987 battle in the short run, won the war in the long run.

Week-by-Week 1987 NFL Results

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