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Hard to believe how we’d survive without NFL 40 years after strike

It was 40 years ago this week that NFL players returned to work following a 57-day strike, the first time pro football had ever lost games due to a work stoppage. There weren’t quite the hard feelings all the way around as there would be five years later, when players crossed picket lines in droves and sometimes encountered teammates throwing eggs and hurling vulgarities at them as they did. 

But if you were a sports fan in 1982, it hurt, especially because baseball had just come off its first extended work stoppage, too, in the summer of 1981. Just as baseball had done, the NFL constructed a hasty and messy return, shortening the season to nine games, picking up the schedule from the point at which the strike ended (Weeks 11-16) and then adding previously canceled games as the final week to get to nine games. 

Sixteen teams made the playoffs. The Jets made it all the way to the AFC Championship game, but lost to the Dolphins in the Mud Bowl. The Giants did not make the playoffs, and before the season even ended, they lost their coach, Ray Perkins, who sprinted to Tuscaloosa to accept the thankless job of replacing Bear Bryant at Alabama. 

Sports fans have endured plenty of labor-induced indignities, of course, the latest a baseball season that was delayed by a lockout in the spring. The NHL had its entire 2004-05 season completely vaporized. The NBA has had two seasons shortened: to 50 games in 1998-99, and to 66 games in 2011-12. None of that was pleasing to anyone; all of them have survived, some with worse reentry pain than others. 

NFLPA representatives negotiate during the 1982 NFL strike.
NFLPA representatives negotiate during the 1982 NFL strike.
Sporting News via Getty Images

But it’s hard to fathom what an NFL labor stoppage would mean now because the NFL is such an integral part of our collective sporting DNA now. Yes, it might have been bad to lose those seven weeks in 1982 (and another in 1987, plus three weeks of scab football that year). 

But think about how different the NFL universe is now … 

Start with fantasy football. Yes, its origins date to 1962, when an Oakland, Calif., businessman named Bill Winkenbach — also a limited partner in the Raiders — hatched the idea for what we now know as fantasy football along with a sportswriter and a PR man. It became an eight-team league starting in 1963 called the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League. 

Still, it took awhile for it to become a trend and even longer to become a national obsession. That probably started for real in 1985, when a national service was established by the company that eventually became AOL. But that was three years after the 1982 strike. 

It is hard to envision how America would handle an interruption of its fantasy-football addiction. Fantasy aficionados of other sports have had to deal with these things, sure, but hockey and basketball fans tend to be deep devotees of those sports, so when they go, they mourn (or rage) about the absence of real games every bit as much (maybe more) as the made-up ones. 

But fantasy football? Just about every league has a member or three who are proud “casual” fans of the sport, whose lone interest is fantasy (you can pick those folks our of a crowd easily; they’re often the ones who are in first place). The notion of a strike or lockout causing a fantasy strike or lockout … that’s almost too cataclysmic to even ponder. 

Gene Upshaw, the National Football League Players Association President, announces a strike by NFL players in New York on Monday, Sept. 20, 1982.
Gene Upshaw, the National Football League Players Association President, announces a strike by NFL players in New York on Monday, Sept. 20, 1982.

Then, of course, there is gambling. Back in 1982, there were those tickets that circulated around offices (and classrooms) listing games and point spreads, which might win you a couple of dollars. There were the box pools for the Super Bowl. Maybe if you happened to be in Vegas, or on a tropical-island vacation, you could place a wager. 

The hardest of the hardcore had bookies. But that was a relatively small number. 

Now? With ads for gambling houses as much a part of watching football games as halftime highlights, and with all of that at the fingertips thanks to cell-phone apps … it is truly hard to imagine how people would adjust to a nine-week absence from all of that. Fans today have a hard enough time adjusting when the season ends naturally, with the Super Bowl. 

Here’s the good news, though: The NFL’s current labor agreement is in place until 2030. No need to get the heebie-jeebies about any of that. Yet.

Vac’s Whacks

It remains hard to fathom, but by 4 o’clock or so Sunday, there is at least a possibility that we may be the host of two first-place NFL teams in our fair town. 

I very much enjoy watching Jericho Sims play basketball. And that goes for Yuta Watanabe on the other side of town, too. 

Jericho Sims
Jericho Sims

I have always been pretty territorial about “Fletch,” and it is still hard to imagine anyone else being Fletch besides Chevy Chase. But I must admit, I thoroughly liked Jon Hamm in “Confess, Fletch.” And having John Slattery show up there was a nice touch, too. 

If only the Islanders played every game like it was already the third period.

Whack back at Vac

Marc Aronin: Face it, rivalries don’t exist anymore. Even if, during a buildup to a game, teams say how much they hate each other, two minutes after a game ends they’re posing for pictures while exchanging jerseys. 

Vac: I’ll never forget the time Carlton Fisk swapped his No. 27 Red Sox jersey for Thurman Munson’s pinstriped No. 15 … 

Richard Siegelman: Joe Tsai may have judged Kyrie Irving to not be anti-Semitic, but I still consider Kyrie to be anti-sensitivity training, anti-sensible, anti-sense (common), anti-sensitive … 

Vac: Check. Check. Check. Check … 

@drschnipp: As a Mets, Jets, Islanders and Knicks fan I’ve spent too much time hating my own owners to worry about hating crosstown rivals. I only have so much hate to give! 

@MikeVacc: That does sum things up nicely. 

Michael Gijanto: Whether you love ’em or despise ’em, Houston is damn good. They remind me of the 1996-2000 Yankees. They do everything well. 

Vac: And as angry as Yankees fans are about them winning again … well, it could be worse. They sure could have another two titles to their name. And don’t feel done, either.

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