Scab Story: The 1987 NFL Strike

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The specter of an extended work stoppage means we don’t know exactly when we’ll get to watch pro football again. We’re not experts on the lockout, but we thought this might be a good time to fill you in on the details of the NFL’s last major labor crisis, 1987’s midseason player strike.

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What were the players after?

Free agency. The players had ostensibly had free agency for a decade, but there was a major hurdle to their movement from team to team. The “Rozelle Rule” stated that if a team signed a free agent from another squad, the commissioner could compensate the player’s original team with draft picks or players from his new team. This rule hampered players’ movement in search of bigger paychecks, especially since the compensation to players’ former teams could be as steep as two first-round draft picks.

When did the players decide to strike?

The strike began after the season’s second week of games. The players likely assumed that this tactic would give them leverage, since TV networks would need their games to fill out the following week’s schedules. When the players pulled the same maneuver in 1982, the league’s schedule ended up being reduced from 16 games to nine for the season. The players’ logic was that even if the owners had the nerve to toss together replacement teams, there was no way TV stations would air terrible football.

This time around, though, the owners decided to call the players’ bluff. The NFL canceled Week 3’s games – thereby reducing the season to 15 games – and teams began assembling replacement players. As it turned out, the TV affiliates were happy to show the replacement players’ games. As NFL stars walked picket lines outside of their teams’ headquarters, personnel men scrambled to throw together rosters that could take the field for Week 4.

Did these replacement teams have hilariously punny nicknames?

So glad that you asked. Clare Farnsworth compiled the following brilliant list for a 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story: the Los Angeles Shams, the Chicago Spare Bears, the Seattle Sea-Scabs, the New Orleans Saint Elsewheres, the Miami Dol-Finks, and the San Francisco Phoney-Niners.

Did any of the replacement players turn out to be good?

That really depends definition of “good.” Remember, the NFL basically had less than two weeks to toss together 28 complete rosters, so they weren’t particularly picky about whom they suited up. Many of the replacement players were guys who had been cut during training camp or passed over during the draft. Or if a team couldn’t find that sort of luminary, they’d look for random guys who happened to be big, like bouncers.

The best replacement player was probably Houston Oilers linebacker Eugene Seale, who ran back an interception return for a TD in the team’s first replacement-player game. He stuck around with the Oilers until 1992 and even made the All-Pro team as a special teams ace in 1988. Replacement Saints QB John Fourcade kicked around in the league until 1990, too.

Did any of the replacement players go on to better things?

There’s where things get interesting. Hip-hop fans might have recognized a young replacement defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams: Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who appeared as a backup in two games.

There was also some legitimate football expertise on the replacement rosters. The Chicago Spare Bears boasted future New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton at quarterback. Payton’s play turned out to be significantly less brilliant than his play-calling as a coach. Payton only completed eight of 23 pass attempts in three games while throwing an interception and taking seven sacks. He racked up a putrid QB rating of 27.3 for his efforts.

Current UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel also suited up during the strike; he went 2-0 as the San Diego Chargers’ replacement starter.

What happened to the actual players in their strike?

The Players Association certainly didn’t put on a clinic in striking solidarity. Some players immediately crossed the picket line, most notably New York Jets star defensive end Mark Gastineau, who claimed he needed the money to pay alimony. (Gastineau would end up scuffling with a teammate who spat in his face as he crossed the picket line one morning.)

Other star players like 49ers QB Joe Montana, Seahawks wideout Steve Largent (who torched the replacement Lions for 261 yards receiving in a single game), Raiders lineman Howie Long, and Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett followed suit, and the Players Association started to realize it was sunk. After 24 days of striking, the players returned to work.

Oddly, even after the strike ended, the replacement teams took the field one more time. The players ended their strike on a Thursday, only to be informed by the owners that they had missed the deadline for being eligible to play in Week 6 by one day. The real NFL squads returned to the field for Week 7.

So who won?

In the short term, the owners won a huge victory. The great Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated opened his article on the strike’s end by writing, “The NFL players association got hammered in its 24-day strike…” The players called off the strike and returned to work without a new collective bargaining agreement. They didn’t get the free agency concession they were looking for, either. In short, the whole episode was something of a debacle.

Eventually the players won a series of court battles that enabled them to snag free agency and a set share of league revenues. The players’ union, which had decertified after losing the strike, didn’t officially reform as a union until 1993.

The other winners were the Washington Redskins, who had an odd knack for winning the Super Bowl in abbreviated strike years. The Skins’ replacement team went 3-0, and when the big boys came back they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, just as they had after the shortened 1982 season.

March 12, 2011 - 5:03am
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