Despite drastic growth of the game, many NFL labor issues remain the same

Bill Curry has seen it all before: the grandstanding, posturing and theatrics that go with the current labor negotiations between National Football League owners and players.

"It's déjà vu," said Curry, a former Baltimore Colts center who was president of the NFL Players Association during a 42-day strike during training camp in 1974.

There's one big difference between then and now, he said: the muscle of players at the table today.

"Thirty-seven years ago, the owners were indomitable. They just stared us down and easily broke our strike," said Curry, now football coach at Georgia State. "Players started streaming into camp with the first threats from clubs that they might lose their jobs.

"Guys would call me and say, 'Bill, I support the strike, but I can't pay my mortgage, and the general manager called to say the guy they drafted at my position is playing well and that I better get my butt to camp.' "

That was 1974. Nowadays, Curry said, "I don't think players are intimidated by the owners. I don't think today's guys are intimidated by anything."

Though the owners and players agreed Thursday to a 24-hour extension of their talks, the sides apparently remain far apart on major issues. The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the league's revenues, including what cut team owners should get up front to help cover their costs. Under the old deal, owners received about $1 billion off the top. They entered these negotiations seeking to add another $1 billion to that.

Among the other significant topics: a rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.

But whatever the outcome, there will be few, if any, perks in the offing for old-timers, said Bruce Laird, a former Colt safety and an advocate for retired players.

"Our needs are entirely different – a revamped disability system, health care insurance and pension increases for guys who played before 1993," said Laird, founder of a group (Fourth & Goal) that espouses retirees' causes.

"But we can't find out from (either side) what they would do for us. To them, we're just political fodder. We're an afterthought. We're like the dogs in the Middle Ages who sat under tables, picking up scraps of food that the lords didn't want."

Ordell Braase agreed.

"Compared to what (pro) baseball and basketball have done for their former players, well . . . the NFL is far below that," said Braase, longtime Colts defensive end who served as NFLPA president from 1964-67. "I'd be very surprised if they did anything for the (oldest) retirees now."

Financial transparency in these negotiations has been hard to come by, said Matt Stover, former Ravens' kicker who spent 19 years as a players' rep.

"To what extent we'll be able to negotiate depends on both sides understanding, in their entirety, what issues are at hand," Stover said. "The owners can say something is true, but – show me why it's true."

Another ex-Raven put it more bluntly.

"The owners don't want to show us their books," defensive end Rob Burnett said. "(The NFL) is a huge global brand, and owners have created a vast number of revenue streams with a few little stashes that they want to keep for themselves. That's not fair, and the only way we can see that is by decertifying the union and filing an antitrust suit."

Not all former Baltimore players sided with their brethren.

"No one out there will say the players aren't well-paid," said Ray Brown, a safety on the Colts' 1958 world championship team and a retired lawyer in Mississippi. "I'm probably a renegade for not taking the players' position in this, but it's hard to do that when they're making the money they're making."

One chink in the players' armor: as many as 25 per cent of them reportedly live paycheck to paycheck.

"What owners are counting on is unrest among the players themselves, those who want their money now and who aren't thinking about their future," Burnett said. "The bottom line? Players need the gumption to buckle down and make the owners pay."

No one expects a quick end to the dickering.

"You're not going to see a settlement during the off-season," Braase said. "A lot of threats will be made, but when the whistle blows and the curtain goes up (for the regular season), both sides will come together."

Laird predicts they'll wrap things up this summer.

"Obviously, they won't go to camp on time. They'll string it out, but save all the regular-season games, if possible," he said. "As for the fans, do you really think they give a flip as to who's going to lose – the millionaires or the billionaires?"

Even a prolonged lockout won't affect the game's popularity, Curry said.

"The fans won't spend their money elsewhere," he said. "Football is the national pastime – no, it's the state religion."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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