31 Years ago, a Players Strike Paved the Way for The Modern NFL

By Evan Henerson

Are NFL players “prisoners” or “cattle?” Apparently that depends on which owner is doing the phrasing, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In his article for “Deadspin,” reporter Dom Cosentino has done a frankly masterful job revisiting the scene and issues of the NFL Players Strike of 1987. The piece begins with a group of Philadelphia Eagles players arriving at Veterans Stadium to picket against the scabs hired to take their place and ends a few thousand words later concluding that “despite all the gains the players have made, the owners can still remind them that they see them as inmates.”

That quote is, of course, a reference to Houston Texans owner Bob McNair who recently told a roomful of NFL owners and executives “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” a quote McNair would try to dial back and significantly regret.

Cosentino has interviewed an endless stream of former players – from scabs to superstars – who picketed, crossed the picket line, broke with the union, protested, etc. during the 24 days in 1987 that the strike lasted. His story is meticulously researched and the detail is superb. If someone makes another documentary about the 1987 strike, they should bring Consentino on as a consultant.

Here’s some more from the article:

“What did the strike accomplish? Mainly, it taught the union that the owners weren’t going to give them free agency through the normal bargaining channels. In February 1989, the NFL came up with a restricted form of free agency known as Plan B, which allowed teams to hold limited rights to protect 37 of their players. It was still a shitty arrangement, so by November, the union decertified and sued the league in federal court. They won free agency in 1992, and by the next year the NFL had established a system that included free agency and a salary cap. And, despite ownership’s hand-wringing, the sky didn’t fall. In fact, the opposite happened.”

Fair warning: the article is lengthy, but still a compelling read for devotees of labor and the NFL alike. Read it here

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