1980s: The Fight For Free Agency
A four-year collective bargaining agreement was signed which improved benefits like severance pay and gave the NFLPA the right to players’ salary information and the ability to regulate agents, a program other player associations followed. We also reclaimed group our group licensing rights and signed licensing deals with several companies. The fight for free agency continued in 1989 when the NFLPA decertified as a union and sued the NFL.
September 21, 1982: Players begin a strike that would last 57 days – the longest strike in NFL history – after the league rejected their proposal to receive 55 percent of the pie. Up until that point, owners split all of the TV and gate money evenly among themselves, hurting player leverage. After all, with most stadiums already selling out tickets, why would an owner bid millions for a free agent if his revenue couldn’t go any higher?
December 5, 1982: A new CBA is signed. Highlights of the five-year deal include:
- Owners pay $60 million in “money now” benefits to offset what the players lost during the strike.
- Players gain severance pay for the first time.
- Players acquire the right to a second medical opinion, the right to select a surgeon and the right to inspect medical records.
- Clubs could now only negotiate with agents certified by the NFLPA.
- The NFLPA would now receive copies of all contracts, arming players with accurate information for salary negotiations.
June 1983: Players elect former NFLPA President Gene Upshaw as the new executive director.
1986: A player survey conducted by the union shows that free agency is their highest priority. No surprise, considering that, out of the 500 players who had become “free agents” in the last five years, only one received an offer from a new team.
September 1987: Players go on strike after Week 2 of the regular season. But this time, the league stages games using replacement “scab” players along with a handful of veterans who crossed the picket line.
October 15, 1987: A fractured union votes to end the strike after 24 days. That same day, the NFLPA files an antitrust lawsuit (Powell v. NFL) against the NFL to overturn the league’s rules restricting free agency.
January 1988: Judge rules in favor of the players in Powell v. NFL, ending the league’s first refusal/draft pick compensation system that restricted free agency.
1989: The NFL implements a Plan B “free agent” system, allowing teams to have first dibs on re-signing 37 of their players. If a club doesn’t strike a deal and that player signs elsewhere, the team would receive compensation.
November 1, 1989: The appeals court overturns the 1988 ruling in Powell v. NFL. The judge says that as long as a union represented the players, they had no rights under antitrust laws to sue owners.
November 3, 1989: Players vote to abandon the NFLPA’s status as a union. Leverage for such a move – and the legal battle that followed – is created by the growing group licensing revenues, made possible by the majority of players signing Group Licensing Authorizations (GLA). The agreements give exclusive rights to the NFLPA.