Following up on our “The Game” series, we move from broadcast to the evolution of the players themselves. From the backyard imitations of players you never met to the reality of a world today where players are distant and less accessible. For some, above the game.
With the current labor situation in full swing, it would be a great place to start with the beginning of the first labor movement. Way back in 1956, the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns decided to unionize. It was during this time that the NFLPA was born. The players wanted equal pay across the league. They wanted the teams to pay for the equipment, upkeep of the equipment, a league minimum salary for players, and continued pay if they were injured and unable to play.
One of the leading players in this fight, was none other Don Shula who was a member of the Baltimore Colts at the time.
Along with Sam Huff of the NY Giants, John Gordy of the Detroit Lions, Frank Gifford, and Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams, Shula and company were today’s equivalent of the current 10 players who filed litigation papers against the owners today.
The players back then were treading in new water and territory as the league was still an infant and there was no AFC/NFC. It was all the AFL or American Football League.
The players would win and the NFLPA would officially be recognized in 1968 when the first CBA was made.
While the players fought early on for their rights, it was the changes in how the public perceived them that grew as well.
The players of the 70′s and late 60′s are still iconic to many fans. They are the history of the game, the founding members of what is fielded today. They are the reasons that so many took to the high-school fields on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, the progression of a collegiate athlete to work harder to take the next step.
The NFL draft was born in 1930 but wasn’t executed until 1936. (we will cover the draft history later).
Players were much more “available” back then and while many were “idols” to thousands of children, you really wouldn’t recognize many of them on the streets if they past you. I remember a flight to Missouri in 1987 after I joined the Army. I was waiting in the airport for my flight and sitting two seats away from me was Clay Matthews of the Browns. I didn’t know it was him until someone told me later. That’s how unfamiliar players were outside of the game.
Still, if you knew one or two, you knew them. Literally. It was very easy to approach a player, get an autograph or two, call out to them at a game and get a wave back. See them in a store and they would shake your hands and look right at you when you they spoke.
On November 10th, 1986 I attended the Dolphins/Browns game in Cleveland, as mentioned in my last “The Game” article. I stood outside the visiting team locker room and waited for the players to come out. No special tickets were required. You simply needed to know where to go. Getting there was a lot of fun and to this day, I remember the events vividly.
It started with me walking out of the stadium and then to the the awaiting team buses. Fuad Reveiz walked by me in the tunnel and I didn’t even know it was him. My mother asked me if he was someone on the team and that’s when I realized who he was. I walked over and got his autograph, no questions asked. As I turned around, I saw a man down a loading corridor and recognized him as Bob Baumhower. He was alone and I walked up to him as though he knew me.
He signed a picture, a football card, and a hat for me, shook my hand and talked about how bad his knees were hurting. He even said he didn’t know how many games he had left in the tank. He retired after the season.
After speaking briefly with Mr. Baumhower, I found myself in the center of one of the most memorable moments of my life. I stood in the open hole to fill in a circle of players. To the right of me, Mark Duper. Across from me. Mark Clayton. To the left of me, one of the Blackwood brothers. Clayton was pissed that the team had lost and was basically blaming Dan for the game. “Why the hell he doesn’t just throw the damn ball up to me is beyond me. He does that and we win that game. He throws it to Dupe, we win that game. Who the hell is going to win running the ball. Know what I mean kid?” He said looking at me. I literally stood there listening to them talk about the game with me. From their perspective. It seemed like a decade long.
They finally had to leave for the bus and they all signed my hat and shirt and shook my hands, patted me on the back and left. Clayton pointed down the tunnel and told me that Marino would be out soon. “Ask him why the hell he didn’t throw the ball to me when you see him.” They all laughed.
I walked down the tunnel and saw the young John Offerdahl with his arm in a sling. I asked him for his autograph and he simply said that he couldn’t sign anything because he didn’t have use of his arm. He said he was sorry and left for the bus. That’s about when Dan Marino walked out. I held out my stuff to have signed and called to “Mr. Marino”. At about the same time some bodyguard type pushed me aside, literally, and walked by.
Marino had been in the league on three years, he turned and grabbed the guy by the collar and got into his face and said, “If you ever do that again, you will never have a job again. Don’t ever touch a fan, you go that?”. He turned to me and said, “I have to get to the bus kid, can you walk with me?”. We chatted alone the way, my legs trying to keep up with his quick pace. He stopped outside the bus doors signed my stuff, shook my hand, and got on the bus. Thanked me for being a Dolphins fan. I never asked him why he didn’t throw the ball to Clayton late in the game.
That’s how it use to be. Today, you can’t get close to the players after the games. They park in secure areas of the stadium and you normally can’t watch them pull in from the barriers. You may get to shake a hand after a game as they leave the field if you’re lucky enough to have those seats close to the turf. Maybe you get to run into them at a mall or a team sponsored event.
It used to be easy to get autographs. You simply asked and they signed. Autographs became a money making business and at about the time that “card shows” and “autograph fees” became popular in the late 80′s, the individual connections between fans and players began to wane.
The Players endured the strike of 1987 after decertification of the NFLPA that had been around for decades. They wanted more opportunity to expand their own games. They wanted free agency, they wanted better benefits for themselves and retired players, they wanted a lot that the NFL simply didn’t afford them, and they got it. They deserved it. They were laborers who simply were not receiving anything close to fair from the growing NFL. With TV contracts breaking records, the players wanted and deserved a piece of that pie.
Still, as the players once again became a union after the strike gave way to an eventual CBA (1993) the players themselves became more distant. With fan attention and media attention becoming so wide-spread, even the 50th guy on the roster was someone who fans recognized in public and while coverage from ESPN increased the visibility of the player, the opposite side of that was that now fans knew who they were. No more dinners with the wives in private at a restaurant, someone was bound to interrupt for an autograph.
The autograph hunters began selling the signatures at card shows and flea markets and in card shops around the country. The prices of trading cards that had long ago been popularized by major league baseball, was growing faster and faster. No longer were there simply 2 card companies putting out editions, there were now 8 to 10. And with that came player exclusive contracts, and suddenly, you couldn’t get a player to sign certain types of football cards because they had an exclusive agreement with someone else. Yes, that scene in Jerry Maguire was real.
The player to fan disconnect was beginning and as the Networks began to show more and more of the players and ESPN began to show more and more specialized highlights, the NFL player who would sit and talk with you outside of the stadium gave way to the highlight reel and thrill seeking types like Deon Sanders who began to transcend the game. The NFL took the fans liberty of standing outside the locker rooms away and suddenly the players weren’t available outside of specialized appearances.
Today, you can meet athletes during training camps if you attend, you can approach them on the streets if you see them. Fans have changed as well over the years. The realization that so many in the autograph business of the late 80′s and early 90′s ruined it for so many, nowadays adult fans don’t normally ask for autographs and it’s understood when a player will pass on signing for an adult in favor of a child or pass on the adult all together. Their names are being sold on Ebay. Literally.
Players will wave and some will blow kisses, every now and then an ESPN highlight changes from and endzone dance to a players tossing some kid a ball in the stands and there are stories that surface of some fan meeting a player at a local sports bar or parking lot. But gone are the days of the sandlot kid running into his favorite players and simply chatting it up as if they were friends.
While fans enjoy the 24/7 coverage of the sport and other sports, it comes with the price of intimacy with the players that we grew to love. Our own children now can interact with the players by attending sponsored football camps or team organized events. It keeps some degree of magic alive.
Today, the players fight once again and in this world of economic strife for millions of Americans it is perceived as greed. The NFL has grown to enormous popularity and that has a lot to do with the way the players play the game. They have given the fans what they want, the highlight film. The hard hits, the sound bite, and the facial recognition. Fans in general now connect with players through ESPN and NFL Network, through websites such as this. It’s a full blown 24/7 365 day a year microscope. And we all watch it.
The NFL did a fabulous job with marketing their product and it didn’t grow in popularity, it exploded. The NFL owners want something back and the players don’t want to give it back. We endure the first work stoppage in some 24 years and now that the monster we helped create is gone, we start to place blame. Players have evolved from that unknown mythical player of the 60′s and 70′s to the accessible and open players of the 80′s and as our demands on them grew, the networks obliged, and the players withdrew from the everyday contact. It was something they had to do.
Today, it’s much more rounded. See a player on the street and he will shake your hand, might sign some stuff for you, and he might give you a bit of a chat, but they are always aware that a camera is usually watching from somewhere. And inevitably, what happens away from the game is bound to make it still on one of the Networks. Or on a website.
Today we wait the future of the game but it’s the past that really brought us here. It doesn’t matter if you support the players or the owners or blame them both, the reality is we all, fans too, created this mess. It just seems that so long ago it was much easier to just be a fan…and I suppose it was easier to being a player as well.
By the way, two years ago I was in Miami for a Dolphins event the team holds annually for those who cover the team in the Internet world. I was invited by Mike Brothers of the ShedDawgs to visit “Offerdahls” restaurant where we met him for lunch. I was the tag along in the group but I finally got that autograph on that football card that I never got way back in ’86.