Lessons from Doug Allen’s NFL Days

Even back then, Allen was the truest believer of the lot, certain that the players accounted for the league’s popularity and soaring t.v. fees, not the owners.

Last Updated: November 6, 2013 @ 3:51 PM
“We want to get a deal, and management wants to get a deal, but it’s also clear to us that management is trying to get it as cheap as they can.”
That was Doug Allen talking after a typically grueling negotiating session. Progress was negligible. An agreement seemed far away in time and terms. Allen looked grim. So much money, so many jobs at stake. But this wasn’t yesterday or last week. This was 22 years ago, when Allen was assistant executive director of the National Football League Players Association. On that particular day, which wasn’t much different from the weeks before or after, the players were on strike while NFL owners were staging games for a month with fakes – replacement players as they were known then.
Things seem somewhat different now. There would be no replacement actors for members of the Screen Actors Guild, which he served as chief negotiator until he was ousted on Jan. 26 over his passionate support for a vote to strike the Hollywood studios. Or maybe unknowns would fill in – probably with the same results as before: football games with replacement players were curiosities, at best, drawing only a fraction of the crowds of legitimate games.
I knew Doug Allen well in those days. As the national football correspondent for The New York Times, I covered the league and all its attendant issues. In those days, boom years for the NFL and its television partners, conflict over revenue distribution was constant. Whatever labor peace that existed between the team owners and the players union always felt tenuous at best and transitory. A strike had wiped out half the 1982 season, and another killed more than a month of games in 1987.
Allen and I were in the middle of them both, in our vastly different roles. He was number two to the union’s executive director, Ed Garvey, then to Gene Upshaw after Garvey stepped down in 1983. Garvey was a wildly entertaining, loquacious union leader, a Wisconsin progressive from a Minneapolis law firm with the perfect name for a future union negotiator: Lindquist and Vennum. Garvey later ran for the U.S. Senate and governor of Wisconsin, losing both times.
Upshaw, who died last August, was a hulking figure, a former star offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders. He always seemed to me far more serious than the wise-cracking Garvey, but I always had the feeling the team owners respected Upshaw more.
While Garvey and Upshaw were the union’s public face, Allen was the dutiful lieutenant, and it was always my sense that he was the truest believer of the lot, blindly certain that the players accounted for the league’s huge popularity and soaring television rights fees, not the owners. He seldom sought out reporters but never shied from setting them straight when they found him.
Yet where Garvey delivered the message with a snarky smile and Upshaw with a practiced sincerity, Allen seemed to exude real disgust for the owners. No jokes. No warmth. Always holding out the possibility of a strike to punish them.
I know he loved the players. He was one, himself, a linebacker. But I always had this nagging sense that his passion for the union cause had as much to do with antipathy toward management as hoped-for gains for the players. How much that played a role in holding the union together, I’m not sure. But the 1982 strike lacked the full backing of many of the league’s biggest earners, the quarterbacks; and a handful of NFL regulars, desperate for income, crossed picket lines to play in the fake games of 1987.
When Allen was hired as SAG’s chief negotiator, all these memories came flooding back. It suggested to me that the union would be digging in, and if so, they had the right man at the front. When he was let go in a swirl of acrimony and dissent, I knew, even from a distance, he had made his mark.