- - Tuesday, November 15, 2016


The NFL Players Association is marking its 60th anniversary this month with a campaign to honor those players who paved the tough road to get to this point — including the late Baltimore Colts’ great John Mackey.

No players union has struggled more than the NFLPA, for several reasons. The system that players operate under — competing for their jobs as new players are brought into the league every year — is a roadblock to any strong labor fight that would include some sort of work stoppage. Not being on the field brings the real risk of losing your livelihood. And, unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball, there is no protection of the guaranteed contract.

In an effort to honor trailblazers who fought for better pay and working conditions, the NFLPA has created its own Hall of Fame, and Mackey, who led  players at a time when NFL owners scoffed at and belittled the notion of a union, is fittingly a part of the inaugural class.

Mackey was one of the pioneer African-American athletes of the 1960s who fought for change at a time when change was often costly for those who sought it. He got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his final year of eligibility in 1992, after being kept out for years because of his union activity. As fellow tight end Mike Ditka once said after he was inducted earlier, “I don’t know how I got in here before John Mackey.”

If you think Roger Goodell doesn’t have the respect or trust of his players, read this account of Mackey’s dealing with the great Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner revered for his rule. In his autobiography, “Blazing Trials,” which I co-wrote with Mackey, the former Colt great told the story of how Rozelle and former Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams tried to use the cancer that was killing Vince Lombardi, who had coached the Redskins for one year in 1969 and appeared to turn the struggling franchise around with an 7-5-2 record, as leverage to force striking NFL players back to work in the summer of 1970.

Mackey was at Duke Ziebert’s restaurant in the District having dinner with Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps head who was making a run for president, when Williams came in. According to Mackey, Williams yelled at him, “It’s your fault.”

Mackey didn’t know who Williams was. They were introduced, and then Williams made his plea for labor peace, using Lombardi’s cancer as an argument. “I always wanted to be in business with Vince Lombardi, and now that we’re in business together, he’s dying … you’re killing him. You’ve got to sign the contract for the players.

“It was a cold, calculated tactic by the owners to use Lombardi as leverage in the labor dispute,” Mackey said.

Then came a meeting with Rozelle at the Philadelphia home of Ed Sabol, head of NFL films. Rozelle told Mackey, “Vince is dying. You know what that means? If he dies before you sign the contract, the public is going to believe that you killed him. You’ve got to sign it because he is the Kennedy of football. If you don’t sign it before he dies, everything is going to stop and we’re going to lose the whole season.”

Mackey wrote about another session in Rozelle’s apartment while they were watching the College Football All-Star Game with several NFL owners. The celebrated, revered, NFL commissioner told Mackey, “You know the only friends you have in the NFL are in this room.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, if these are my friends, I know I’m in trouble.’”

Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith told Mackey, “Do you really want to go down in history as the guy who killed the goose that laid the golden egg? We’ve all got it pretty good in this league and with what you’re trying to do, you’re going to ruin it. You’ve got to sign.”

What Mackey was simply trying to do was to get better benefits for his fellow union members. As a result of the strike, which lasted several days during training camp, the players received for the first time disability and widow’s benefits, a modest increase in pension payments, and the right to use agents to negotiate their contracts.

Vince Lombardi died Sept. 3, 1970, of colon cancer — not the players strike, as Williams and Rozelle so crassly suggested would happen.

As it turned out, it has been the players who have been dying for the cost of the game. Mackey, who suffered from dementia resulting from concussions, passed away in 2011. He was 69.

The goose, as we know, is laying bigger golden eggs than ever.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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