Hebert's gamble in 1990 paid off big for NFL's players

by | Special to CBSSports.com

Four-hundred thousand dollars changed the landscape of the NFL. Think about that. A $400,000 raise per year for then-Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert from stingy general manager Jim Finks.

It would have saved the owners a lot of trouble.

That $400,000 eventually turned into a $200 million windfall for the more than 1,000 players stuck under the archaic -- and what turned out to be illegal -- Plan B player protection program preventing players from becoming free agents.

After joining the players' strike in 1987, Hebert made a bigger sacrifice in 1990 by sitting out the entire season. (Getty Images)  
After joining the players' strike in 1987, Hebert made a bigger sacrifice in 1990 by sitting out the entire season. (Getty Images)  
All it took was Hebert, the admittedly stubborn, hard-headed Cajun from Cutoff, La., to risk his NFL livelihood by sitting out the entire 1990 season simply to prove a point. What he became was an unknowing trailblazer for the modern-day players as they sought their fair share of the $9 billion pie, the centerpiece of today's NFL unrest.

Hebert was the then-decertified player union's lead and most compelling witness in the benchmark McNeil v. NFL court case in 1992. This case paved the way for Reggie White to eventually finish off the NFL in court a year later to open up free agency for players.

He battled the NFL in court.

And he won. He won for all the players. He won for himself.

All it took was the biggest gamble of his life.

Hebert simply sought market value after the 1989 season, the end of Hebert's contract. Hebert would have been perfectly happy with a $400,000 raise per year, making him the first million-dollar player in franchise history.

"I'll never forget this," Hebert said. "I knew my contract was up. After eight games in 1989, I was the No. 1 ranked quarterback in the NFL after eight games. ... Then I had a couple of bad games and then I knew that Finks was going to bring up, 'Well, I don't even know if you're the starting quarterback for the team.' That's because I knew he didn't want to pay me. I knew I was ranked somewhere around ninth through that three-year period. Out of 28 quarterbacks, I was only paid around No. 19 and so I looked at it as I should be paid somewhere around where I was ranked. I was confident that if Finks wouldn't take care of me, that I knew I could play."

Finks was having none of that, and he knew he could get away with it back then.

Under the Plan B rule, teams could protect 37 players for basically as long as they lived -- contract or not. Hebert's contract was up and Finks could just sit on Hebert until he caved to a low-ball offer. The Raiders reportedly were willing to trade for Hebert. Finks stood his ground. Hebert wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn't going to be paid, either.

"[Finks] thought he could crush me," Hebert said. "He thought, 'You're going to sit out and rot.' So I almost wanted to prove to him that you're not going to hurt me. You think you're going to hurt me, but you're not."

So Hebert took the year off. Saints fans hated him for it.

"I was rolling the dice [by sitting out] of how was I ever going to make up that money," Hebert said. "But it was more of a matter of being hardheaded and the principle. I knew this was the right thing."

Hebert sat out once before, to no avail during the 1987 NFL players strike. Hebert missed all three games during the strike period while high-profile players like Lawrence Taylor and Joe Montana had either already crossed the picket line or never went on strike at all.

And of all people, Hebert said Finks wouldn't have shoved him right back in line with the picketers even if the Saints quarterback would have wanted to.

"In '87, I lost $185,000," Hebert said. "I never made up that money. But even if I would have wanted to cross that picket line, Jim Finks would not have let me. He would have said, 'What are you, crazy? You've got to play with these guys. When they come back, you come back.' "

During Super Bowl XLIV media day, Hebert shows his appreciation for current Saints QB Drew Brees. (Getty Images)  
During Super Bowl XLIV media day, Hebert shows his appreciation for current Saints QB Drew Brees. (Getty Images)  
It opened the door for Finks three years later to try to pull one over on Hebert. John Fourcade filled in for Hebert during the three replacement player games in 1987 and remained with the team as Hebert's backup through the 1989 season. The two players had been rivals dating back to high school football in south Louisiana.

With the Saints out of the playoff hunt in 1989, coach Jim Mora sat Hebert and started Fourcade during the final three games. Fourcade helped give Finks the ammunition he needed to stonewall Hebert as Fourcade guided New Orleans past Buffalo, Philadelphia and Indianapolis to give the Saints a 9-7 mark.

Hebert said Finks tried to tell him that he might not even be the starter going into 1990 because of Fourcade's solid play. In turn, Finks wouldn't have to pay Hebert starting quarterback money.

(To say Hebert didn't see Fourcade as a starting quarterback, well ... "I just looked at it as that Fourcade wouldn't have even been playing if there wasn't a strike," Hebert said. "I looked at it like if Finks thinks that Fourcade in the quarterback, well you kind of get what you pay for. He didn't even last a month [in 1990].")

Finks controlled Hebert's future. Hebert felt he had to take a stand.

"[Finks] thought just because I was from Lafourche Parish that, 'Oh, I could control him,'" Hebert said. "I said, 'Mr. Finks, it ain't like I've never left the bayou or something.' ... What I did was I stuck by my guns, when my contract was up in '89, I asked, 'Well how can someone own you if you don't have a contract?' So I challenged them and that's when Jim Finks was so old school. He was like Ralph Wilson, Art Modell. Finks was kind of senile old school. He would say, 'Oh, when I played, I only made $12,000.' And I said, 'Well yeah, you could build a brick house for $16,000.' That's just his way of thinking."

By no means was Hebert alone. Plan B stapled players, like then-Jets running back Freeman McNeil, to teams 'til death do you part rather than through the life of a contract. Hence, McNeil v. NFL was brought about. And Hebert became the poster child for the illegality of Plan B, whether he realized it or not.

"I didn't know any better," Hebert said. "I thought it was just common sense. I was just standing up for what was right. I told Mr. Finks I could live in a trailer. I'm not no silver spoon kind of guy and all of that. It's a matter of the principle. I'm just not gonna be, 'Oh just trust me, [Finks]. I'm going to do what's right for you.' No. I'm going to do what's right because I know what's right, and not think he's going to take care of me. This is the right thing and somebody has to stand their ground. I'm in a situation, so why not me?"

So Hebert testified in court in front of Judge David Doty (ring a bell?) what he endured.

"They could have been blowing smoke up my butt," Hebert said. "But I remember talking to some of the top [labor lawyers], and what Finks did to me and that you'll testify to, that some of those top guys say there's an 80 percent chance that you'd win the case. I'm thinking that sounded like pretty good odds. When I went to testify, I just basically said what happened. ... That's why, to me, it all worked out."

It was the players' trump card. It won the case for the players back then. And it has served as a watershed moment for the NFL players in labor negotiations.

"In the early 90s, when Bobby Hebert testified in front of Judge Doty, the word coming out of management side and ownership side was that free agency was going to ruin football," "NFLPA" assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah said. "And if players got [the owners'] way, football would be ruined forever. Turns out that Bobby Hebert was right. Free agency was one of the foundations that helped this game grow and that has helped this game become successful. The [current] players are only out to seek a fair and long-term resolution to this issue [lockout, CBA]."

Only four of the eight plaintiffs actually received damages as a result of McNeil v. NFL, totaling $1.6 million. The real money came in a later settlement, when the NFL owed $200 million to more than 1,000 players affected by the Plan B system.

Hebert said he received the most of any of the 1,000-plus players. And deservedly so, considering he took the risk of risks by sitting out an entire season.

"They wanted to [split it even] as a union," Hebert said. "I said, 'Hell no. I'm the only one who freaking sat out.' I wasn't going to sign off on the settlement until I had seen where I got compensated most out of all the players, because I took the most."

Hebert eventually received a two-year deal in 1991 worth $1.8 million per season from Finks. When Hebert came back in 1991, he said Finks didn't attend his press conference.

"He was so bitter. ... Even Rickey Jackson, you know how crazy Rickey is, he told me, 'You know, you made that cancer grown in Mr. Finks [who died of lung cancer in 1994]. You had him so stressed out,'" Hebert said. "And I go, 'Rickey, what are you talking about?' Rickey will say anything."

But Hebert and the Saints were ready to cut ties once his contract expired. Hebert moved on to earn a Pro Bowl bid with the Falcons. Finks had bigger plans, too. He became the odds-on favorite to succeed Pete Rozelle as NFL commissioner. Finks had the vote in place and ready to go. But at the last minute, an unknown antitrust lawyer named Paul Tagliabue won the job.

Hebert is convinced Finks' $400,000 mistake cost the former Saints general manager the most powerful job in football. I reiterated to Hebert that a measly $400,000 that Finks wouldn't cough up cost the NFL $200 million, and all Hebert did was chuckle.

"All of the owners and general managers got pissed off at Finks because they made them feel like he made my case," Hebert said. "And if Finks would have paid and not been so stubborn over $400,000, then I probably would have signed and played."

The stubbornness on the parts of both Hebert and Finks helped open the door for free agency. It also inspired the players in the current labor fight to continue to battle for their beliefs.

"I've talked to Drew [Brees] about all of this, and that's why they looked at the avenue of going through the courts," Hebert said. "Can they truly outlast the owners? No. ... That's why they decertified. They saw the track record. When I look back from my experience to what is going on now, you do not want one side [with leverage]. It's obvious the owners are hammering the players right now because of the way the courts are going right now. Because then this is going to come up in like four or five years. If there's labor peace, I can see the NFL continuing to grow."

And every NFL player who followed Hebert owes the intransigent Cajun a debt of eternal gratitude for sticking to his guns.


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