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In this game, the NFL owners hold all the cards

The official National Football League Game Summary for the Oct. 4, 1987, meeting between the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles is preserved deep within the league's archives, a scanned copy of a document that originally was executed on an electric typewriter late in the afternoon of what the cover sheet insists was a sunny, 50-degree day at Veterans Stadium.

The official National Football League Game Summary for the Oct. 4, 1987, meeting between the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles is preserved deep within the league's archives, a scanned copy of a document that originally was executed on an electric typewriter late in the afternoon of what the cover sheet insists was a sunny, 50-degree day at Veterans Stadium.

Those who were on hand for the loud, scary scene in which a fleet of revving, horn-blasting tractor trailers driven by Teamsters ringed the stadium fender to fender to dissuade customers from entering the building remember the day as anything but mild and pleasant.

The first page of the summary lists the attendance as 4,074 and, for emphasis, as if it were needed, someone wrote the word "STRIKE" in red letters at the top of the page, and someone else's hand wrote "Strike game" in blue near the bottom.

It seemed unreal at the time, and still does today, and many of the issues that were unresolved by the players' strike in 1987 have led the league and its employees to the current situation, one in which the owners are threatening to lock out the players and jeopardize the coming season. Maybe they couldn't stage pretend games with pretend players as they did 24 years ago, but that strategy caused the real players to fold then.

In the previous work stoppage, the owners could claim some moral higher ground because it was the players who elected to strike, but even in the event of a lockout, don't assume anything.

The federal ruling last week that the NFL cannot receive $4 billion from the television networks if the season is not played was widely seen as a victory for the players, one that would force the league to negotiate without a fluffy financial cushion in its back pocket. That's true as far as it goes, but it also gives the owners incentive to build a stage behind the barn and put on a show if they could only figure out how to do it.

Somewhere in the mind-numbing legal tangle of decertification, injunctions, antitrust suits, negotiating impasses, and NLRB challenges, there is a path that leads to a season played under a new set of financial rules, and the owners would accept any players who choose to take part.

It isn't as if the public perception of the owners can get much worse. You can't turn on the radio or read a story without hearing them pummeled for their greed, as if they also hold a monopoly on that. Are they greedy? Oh, my, yes. Their stated desire to skim another $1 billion from the top of league revenues before the players get their cut is a blatant money grab.

But right now, we don't even know if that is really what they are after. It could be the league will settle for half that in order to get the bonanza of an 18-game regular season. That would make sense, especially when the NFL renegotiates the next set of rights fees with the networks. You want to see extortion, wait for that one.

The other issues, even important ones like continuing health care and pension issues, are penny-ante. A rookie wage scale? The current players will sell their little brothers down the river in a heartbeat, just as some veterans played only for themselves during the 1987 strike. A monopoly on greed? Not as long as there are human beings on both sides.

The official game summary from the second week of the strike season, when the Eagles were in Dallas, also reports a pleasant day, and this time it was accurate. Team president Tex Schramm had Dixieland bands playing outside the stadium, and more than 40,000 people showed up. Among the regular Cowboys who played that day were quarterback Danny White, defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones, and two future Hall of Famers, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive tackle Randy White. Those veterans crossed their own picket line or, given that environment, sauntered in between the trombone and the banjo.

After that second game, the strike crumbled and the players voted to return, although not in time to prevent a third replacement game. They took their issues to the court system, jumped through the semantic hoops of decertifying the union, and six years later, there was a new collective bargaining agreement that contained great strides in free agency and - oh, by the way - a hard salary cap.

In the modern NFL game, waiting six years for justice means the average player is achieving that justice for the next generation and not for himself. That's why a strike doesn't work. As for a lockout, where the owners are the ones wanting change and the players are the ones wanting the status quo, there is still the reality that the owners can better withstand a protracted dispute than the players. With or without their $4 billion slush fund, the owners won't hear the ticking clock as loudly as the players.

The probability appears to be that the lockout takes place as threatened and the dance begins again. The union will decertify and bring antitrust action against the league. The league will claim the decertification is a sham that perverts the collective bargaining process. There will be much finger-pointing and even more billable hours for the lawyers. There will be rulings and appeals and tense negotiations and, someday, there will be more football.

Who will win the fight will be largely determined by which side sticks together the best, regardless of the workings of the legal system. In baseball, it has always been the players. In football, it has always been the owners. That could change this time, but history is a difficult river to bend, and money does funny things to people. Everyone wants as much as they can get, but it's only the other guy they call greedy.

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