Big winner

In 1987, with an NFL players strike looming, I recall standing in front of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and talking casually with John Spagnola, an Eagles tight end who was the team's player rep to the NFL Players Association. Club owners had announced that they were going ahead with the season using replacement players. It was a stunning tactic, and no one knew how such a move would be received.

"We're about to find out who controls the game," said Spagnola, a Yale graduate. "The players who play the game or the guys who own the jocks and the socks."


We did find out.

As the three weeks or so of the strike dragged on and teams fielded patchwork rosters, enough paying customers filled seats and, more important, enough TV viewers tuned in to make it clear the mere appearance of familiar helmets and jerseys was more important to many fans than who happened to be wearing the uniforms.


In time, some of the rank-and-file began to trickle across picket lines and, faced with harsh realities, the strikers went back to work crushed. But it left a bitter taste with some players who had been stalwart union backers - future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White was one - and felt wounded by the NFL system that essentially kept players shackled to a team for an entire career.

The aborted strike was also a humiliating defeat for the relatively new executive director of the NFLPA, Gene Upshaw, who had been on the job just four years.

But under Upshaw, the union shifted gears, moving the battle from the bargaining table to the courts. Along the way, Upshaw made the decision to decertify the union.

In hindsight, the strategy was brilliant because it made the NFL vulnerable to antitrust laws. But at the time, decertification was an expensive dice roll that could have come up snake eyes for Upshaw and the remnants of the NFLPA. If his side didn't prevail in federal court, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman would have been flattened.

As it turned out, the combination of decertification and lawsuits filed by the NFLPA and some players (White was among them) was the wedge that opened the door to free agency. And White was among the first to take advantage when he left Philadelphia for Green Bay. Hundreds of others have followed, and virtually every NFL player since has benefited.

Upshaw understood that about free agency, that it was the only way for players to have any financial leverage throughout their careers. Before free agency, players drafted in later rounds had little opportunity to get out of the low-pay track that was set for them the day they were picked regardless of how well they performed.

Today, because of free agency, low-round draft picks - such as ex-Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, who signed with New England as a free agent - can make the leap to multimillionaire based on merit.

What is now a commonplace economic reality was only a dream for players during the dark days of the 1987 players strike, an apparent devastating loss for Upshaw that turned out to be a steppingstone to his most significant triumphant.