The Life of a $725,000 Scab (Fortune Classics, 1987)

March 20, 2011, 5:36 PM UTC

Editor’s Note: After Week 2 of the 1987 NFL season, players walked off in strike. Week 3 games were cancelled, but by Week 4, replacement players, including scabs like regular NFL player like Mark Gastineau, who said he felt more loyalty to Jets owner Leon Hess than to the players’ union, had crossed the picket lines. As the NFL and NFLPA face down the possibility of a 2011 season lost to disputes over finances, the issue of replacement players hasn’t yet arisen, but it soon might. Fortune looks back at the life of an NFL scab (and notes that in 1987, all players had returned, and an agreement reached with owners, by Week 7 of the season). First published October 26, 1987.

A STRIKE is one of the more intense emotional experiences available to an American worker, and Mark Gastineau, defensive end for the New York Jets — a 6-foot 5-inch, 235-pound unit of labor — is starring in the one against the National Football League. As one of the game’s premier — and best-paid — pass rushers, he gained notoriety for his ”sack dance,” a manic bit of high stepping executed near the wreckage of quarterbacks he caught and crumbled. Now Gastineau, superstar, has become Gastineau, superscab.

A name-brand player who crossed the picket line on the strike’s first day, Gastineau, 30, attracted more attention than a goal-line fumble. Players on other teams vilified him — ”He has an IQ of about room temperature” is how Chicago Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton delicately put it — and his own teammates, peers now picketers, made no effort to conceal their anger. A contest pitting a bunch of well-compensated, no-neck entertainers against a millionaire boys’ club for possession of the nation’s fall sporting ritual is hardly the United Auto Workers against General Motors. But it summons up many of the same issues, including the question of what makes one man walk the line and another break ranks with his fellow workers. As in any strike, the success of this one depends on the ability of the union — the National Football League Players Association — to instill in its members a sense of right, of shared values and goals. To do this the union must make it socially, psychologically, or — especially in this case, perhaps — physically uncomfortable for anyone to desert the pack. For the owners the game is simpler: Divide and conquer. By using strikebreakers they hope to destroy the players’ faith in the union’s ability to prevail.

A football team is a peculiar kind of labor force. It is organized labor by definition, yet its members are both more and less cohesive than many workers. The importance of the team, something drilled into each player since Pop Warner League, has a powerful hold. Many players spoke out against the strike but didn’t want to cross the picket line if it meant losing the respect of their teammates.

OTHER FACTORS pull the workers apart: For one, there is an enormous disparity in wages. Similarly, while the players are striking for the same things — higher minimum salaries, better pensions, and the freedom to shop their talents to the highest bidder — winning would mean vastly different things to different people. Throw in the fact that most players are young, have no previous strike experience, and no strike fund to bolster them in time of need, and a betting man would be tempted to take the owners, giving a six-point spread.

Gastineau, who clashed with his teammates even before the strike, fits the personality profile of a scab. He says his co-workers just don’t understand him: ”Players have been upset with me before. There are times when they didn’t believe things I’ve stood for. It started with the dance. That was something I did out of emotion. They didn’t like it.” In the NFL, where defensive linemen are expected only to grunt and square the ball carrier with the horizon, Gastineau’s behavior was considered unlinemanlike. ”Mark has always been a flamboyant person who craved the limelight,” says Kurt Sohn, the Jets shop steward and wide receiver. ”And at times it appears he is more concerned with publicity than playing football.”

SINCE GASTINEAU arrived in the league in 1979, he has not been modest about his abilities, nor has he needed to be. Possessing frightening speed on a chassis that is Muscle Beach prime, he makes opposing quarterbacks feel as though they are being pursued by a rock slide. In his first season as a starter, in 1980, he mashed opposing quarterbacks 11 1/2 times (the half means a teammate joined him in the kill). The next year he led the league in sacks with 20; following the strike-shortened 1982 season, he again led the league in 1983. In 1984 he had 22 sacks, an NFL record. His play brought him a $4-million contract ($725,000 a year plus incentives), with a lifestyle to match. Gastineau models for posters, endorses products, and exhibits the kind of flash once associated with a guy named Broadway Joe Namath. He tooled up to practice one day in a $156,000 Rolls-Royce and kept himself warm in an $11,000 fur coat.

A character like that is a cause for worry to any picket captain. ”People cross the picket line for a number of reasons,” says Lewie Anderson, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. ”They don’t feel loyalty to their co-workers, they don’t agree with the aims of the group, or they think they can protect themselves.” Anderson thinks the American tradition of rugged individualism reinforces strikebreaking.

In explaining his decision to cross the line, Gastineau said he felt more loyalty to Jets owner Leon Hess than to his teammates. Hess, who moonlights as chairman of Amerada Hess Corp. (oil, natural gas, $4 billion a year in sales), signed Gastineau to his contract in 1984 and, in Gastineau’s eyes, cares more about him than do some of the green-and-white shirts. ”There have been things said about me in the papers by my teammates, but never by Mr. Hess,” says Gastineau. ”He visited me in the hospital last year [after knee surgery]. Those things mean a lot to me.”

Gastineau claims he is not crossing the picket line for money and announced he would donate the first paycheck he gets during the strike, about $45,000, to the Tomorrow’s Children Fund, a charity he heads for cancer-stricken children. But money has to be on his mind. Despite his contract, Gastineau has financial problems, according to his ex-wife. She told a TV interviewer that he was behind in his alimony payments.

Money is a far bigger issue for many of the strikers. The NFL’s journeymen, whose minimum pay ranges from $50,000 a year for a rookie to $70,000 for a third-year man, face the same perils any striker does. There are mortgage and car payments to make and mouths to feed at home. And there is an additional problem. Most players are paid on a game-by-game basis, meaning that their personal fiscal year is only 16 weeks long. A player earning $60,000 a year loses almost $4,000 for each game he sits out. Even Tony Dorsett, star running back of the Dallas Cowboys, felt the pressure. He returned to work reluctantly, after nine days, saying he feared he would lose half of his $6 million annuity.

Ironically, Gastineau has probably done more to raise salaries for the Jets than has the union. His big contract, negotiated when the United States Football League was terrorizing NFL owners with player raids, set a benchmark for linemen everywhere. ”My contract was first, and everyone else’s followed,” he says. Although other players knocked his style or ability, he says, ”They all wanted Gastineau money.”

Most players don’t get anywhere near it. Although the NFL pays its players an average of $215,000 (see table), 30% of all players earn less than $100,000, and 57% earn less than $200,000. The injury rate is 100%. The average career lasts about four years, which means the average player can expect to earn around $850,000 during his time on the field. A middle manager in a FORTUNE 500 company would make that much in 12 to 14 years. But unlike most football players, the middle manager would still have his peak earning years ahead of him.

Even if the union could bring the owners to their knees, the spoils would be distributed disproportionately to the 15% of the players who earn more than $300,000. Free agency, the most salient issue of the walkout (see box), would benefit the best players the most, and many of the nonstars would rather not strike for the right of Miami’s Dan Marino, or the next hotshot quarterback, to make an extra million. ”I don’t think free agency is the big issue,” says Calvin Magee, a tight end on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. ”The important issues to me are stuff like the pension plan and severance pay.”

Confrontation and intimidation are vital weapons in keeping any strike alive. Oddly, for a profession that thrives on aggression, the football players didn’t seem all that interested in picketing. Although strikers pelted scabs with eggs a few times and some fists flew, many teams were not manning the lines day in and day out. ”It’s damn important to look a scab in the eye and say, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ ” says Bernie Hostein, who helped coordinate the steelworkers’ picketing against USX this year.

The football players’ union doesn’t have the experience hitting the bricks that the USW does. It has struck or been locked out three times without a victory. Typically when a strike is in the offing, union leaders spread the word to the troops to salt some money away. Often the company, against its will, helps employees out by producing full tilt to build inventories before the walkout. That means the workers bring home checks fattened by overtime.

During the USX stoppage, the union had a strike fund to draw on, arranged for medical insurance, and helped members apply for food stamps. ”This may not relate much to a guy losing $50,000 a week,” says Hostein, ”but it showed the people we were here.”

Hostein and other labor leaders have taken a keen interest in this walkout. They know that striking football players get a lot more attention than striking steelworkers. The labor leaders regard the walkout as an ideal opportunity to demonstrate union strength. Representatives from the steelworkers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and other unions have joined the players on the picket lines. The autoworkers planned to air a radio commercial featuring President Owen Bieber that urged fans to support the union. And the steelworkers’ president, Lynn Williams, ordered the union’s offices open to all players to better coordinate and communicate their activities.

Keeping the stars from crossing the line was of paramount importance to the union. Unlike a factory, where output per employee is relatively equal, ”franchise” players like Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears or Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants have an outsize impact on the game. Several days into the strike, Ronald Seeber of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, analyzed the situation this way: ”The success of the strike depends on 40 or 50 people, the big names. If they come over and play, it will be over.”

THE JETS had been picketing every day, but none of the scabs — desperate for a shot at the NFL — seemed too scared. Each day a bus filled with 40-odd newcomers ran a gauntlet of taunting regulars as it entered the Jets’ Hempstead, New York, training camp. The bus was guarded by cop cars in a vehicular version of the old flying wedge that afforded the occupants more protection than Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien could ever hope for. Gastineau tried to avoid his striking teammates, but he scuffled with one Jet who spit at him. The others rode him hard in the press. For them, as for most strikers, the choice was straightforward: You are either for the union or agin’ it. And they were for it. Early in the strike Gastineau expressed hope that his teammates would respect his feelings and ”let bygones be bygones.” By the fourth day he knew better. ”It’s too bad you have to play defense on the field and off,” he says. But maybe that’s the way it has to be when your work consists of 22 men imitating a train wreck.

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