Sports » Glenn Dickey

Labor strife brings back memories of 1987 stoppage

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The last time the NFL had a work stoppage was 1987. Carmen Policy, who was representing the 49ers at league meetings, remembers it well.

The issue was free agency. Policy came home from a league meeting convinced that the owners, led by Tampa Bay’s Hugh Culverhouse, were determined not to allow it. “They had shouldered Pete Rozelle aside. ‘OK, Pete, you’ve had your say. Now, sit down.’”

Policy reported his experiences to owner Eddie DeBartolo and coach Bill Walsh. “When I told them the owners were determined to continue with replacement players if players went on strike and that the games would count in the league standings, they both had big smiles on their faces.”

Walsh, as always, was very organized. With Allen Webb, head of college scouting, he put together a list of players. When the players went on strike after the first two games, which the 49ers had split, Walsh was ready.

The 49ers went 3-0 in the games in which replacement players were used. The first of those games was against the New York Giants, who had not put together a very good team. The 49ers won 41-21 and Walsh, in a playful mood, even ran some plays from the Wishbone offense.

Several veteran players wanted to come back for the second game. Walsh talked to them and arranged for them to be paid if they’d stay out for another game.

Before the third game, though, the strike was essentially broken as players were returning throughout the league. Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and Russ Francis were among the 49ers who crossed the picket line.

I went to the third game, against the St. Louis Cardinals, and sat in the stands for a time, talking to fans. It was a different experience. Only 38,000 were there, far below the sellouts the Niners had been getting, and I doubt that many were season-ticket holders. Certainly, none that I talked to were. They were relatively young fans, thrilled at the chance to see an NFL game. As it happened, they saw a good one. With Montana playing the whole game, the 49ers won 34-28.

The strike was called off, the league took a one-week recess to regroup and the 49ers, helped by the three wins during the strike, went 13-2, though the season ended abruptly when the Minnesota Vikings upset them in the first playoff game.

The NFL Players Association decertified, allowing individual players to sue the league. Eventually, they won free agency, the owners got a salary cap and peace was restored.

Until this year.

Now, the issue is a more traditional one: money. The owners want a bigger share and a bigger pie, with an 18-game schedule that will bring in more TV money. They’ve been taking $1 billion off the top in revenues. Now, they want an additional $1 billion to help build new stadiums.

There are encouraging differences between 1987 and this dispute. There is no owner as hard-headed as Culverhouse, and owners don’t want to risk killing the golden goose.

The owners have more leverage and they’ll get most of what they want, including the 18-game season. But a lockout will not threaten the regular season.

The most encouraging sign, though, came Thursday when owners and players agreed to a 24-hour extension of the deadline. Whatever happens next, it now seems very unlikely we’ll have another strike or lockout season.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.