Lessons from past labor disputes prove everyone loses

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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There is a cautionary tale for NFL players and the league. It's vocalized by former Dallas defensive back Everson Walls, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and 14-year veteran. It goes like this.

The year was 1987. The league was embroiled in an ugly strike and Walls was a union representative for the Cowboys. The players started as a unified group. They spoke with one voice. Then the weeks and months droned on. Games were missed as the strike continued and slowly the Cowboys' unity began to dissolve.

Tex Schramm, then the president of the Cowboys, was one of the engineers of the league's scab system of replacement players. "We became scab central," Walls remembered. Then players started to cross and that once-unified Cowboys team started to fracture.

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"It became black vs. white," Walls said in a telephone interview, "old vs. young. Superstar vs. ordinary player. It all felt apart. It was chaos in our locker room."

As Walls sees it, players crossing, and that lack of unity, was the beginning of the end for Tom Landry, one of the greatest coaches of all time. Landry had difficulty with the ensuing human wreckage after that ugly strike.

"That signaled the end of the Cowboys in the 1980s," Walls said. "Tom couldn't handle complicated player relationships or race or the problems of social status in a locker room. He was a good, old boy from Mission, Texas.

"When we came back after the strike we were a shell of a team. We went [3-13] the next year. That group never recovered."

Landry was fired after that 1988 season. He was struggling as a coach in his last years with Dallas and Jerry Jones might have fired Landry anyway, but the strike and damaged relationships between Cowboys players didn't help.

Everson Walls says Cowboys players were divided after the 1987 strike. (Getty Images)  
Everson Walls says Cowboys players were divided after the 1987 strike. (Getty Images)  
Strikes and labor disputes are uncontrollable vortices. Nothing about them is predictable except the fact they are often destructive.

If labor strife could help destroy a man as powerful as Landry then a labor dispute can wreak any kind of havoc on any group or person. No one is safe. Not even billionaires or millionaires or Hall of Fame coaches or great players like Walls.

Walls says that 24-day strike cost him $90,000. At that time, $90,000 was a great deal of money to a player, even one as popular as Walls (actually, at any time. $90,000 is a great deal of cash to anyone).

"I still feel the loss of that money today," Walls explained.

In that strike, many players saw the loss of even more money. Owners saw their bank accounts dwindle as well.

In other words, everyone lost.

That's the message from that strike, and the one before it. It's a message that reaches across time: Mess with the golden goose at your own risk.

Walls thought the players and union wouldn't be on the breach yet again. Like many of us, he thought lessons were learned, but here we go.

Maybe these owners and players have learned that lesson and we'll get football sooner rather than later. It just doesn't seem that way for now.

Walls had two pieces of advice for the current union. He wants the union to continue fighting for better benefits for players, particularly older former players. It was one of the main goals of the union then and remains an issue now. Last year over 300 players were on injured reserve in a league of about 1,500. That's a remarkable number.

The former union representative also said this to his old union friends.

"Stand your ground," he said. "No matter what, stand your ground."

The owners will likely do the same and the battle continues. Again.

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