Saturday, January 28, 2023

Review: Never Ask "Why" (2023)

By Ed Garvey; Edited by Chuck Cascio

You'd have to call this one of the biggest surprises of the sports book year: a memoir by Ed Garvey, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association. 

The surprise is that Garvey died in 2017. Yet here we are, about six years later, and "Never Ask 'Why'" is now available. 

While the introduction is a little vague on the specifics, Garvey always intended to get this book of memories about the NFLPA's fight against the National Football League into the public's hands. But he ran out of time in doing so. But now, with a little help from editor Chuck Cascio, it's here. 

The idea behind the book is to get Garvey's thoughts about the negotiation process with the NFL into the public eye. History, the argument goes, would benefit from that point of view. It's difficult to disagree with that point, so it's simply nice to read the relatively short (234 pages) but pricey ($35) book.

For those who were too young or too disinterested in the subject, labor unions in pro sports started to flex their muscles in the late 1960s. For decades, players had taken whatever the owners were willing to give them - and forced to like it, sort of along the lines of eating their vegetables. Because, what else could they do? The deals were one-sided in favor of the owners, but they weren't exactly raking in the cash in most cases. 

But as sports - especially baseball and football - started to grow in the 1960s, the players started to realize that maybe the old rules shouldn't apply to the new circumstances. So their players' associations started to grow in power and influence, with the owners kicking and screaming every step of the way. Some of the rules of the game were downright illegal, while others were at best questionable. So eventually the PAs fought for more rights and gained power ... slowly. 

After reading this football side of the story, it seems obvious that the baseball players were better at this union stuff than their football counterparts. The baseball folks always had the smartest guy in the room in Marvin Miller, and that made a difference. They also had the full support of all of the players, which Garvey didn't. It's no wonder that free agency arrived in baseball for the 1976 season, while football had to wait several years into the 1990s for that breakthrough. Part of the problem is that Garvey admits he made several mistakes when a major confrontation took place in 1974. Those of age remember that was when training camps in the NFL featured the "No Freedom, No Football" walkout.

Garvey goes through the timeline of what happened in the major confrontations between the NFL and its players. Some of the league's tactics are by Garvey's description simply terrible - such as changing the words of several pages of an agreement  before the actual signing of a document, or making threats about the consequences of turning down a "take it or leave it" offer. It seems as if the NFL owners were just as clueless as their baseball counterparts in not seeing the inevitable future of a partnership between the two sides. The difference was that the NFL owners were a bit smarter and more organized than the baseball folks. 

The book ends around 1982, when the NFL and the NFLPA were at it again. The players would figure out that a strike in the middle of the season was much more effective than one at the beginning of the season, since they had a few paychecks in the bank by then and more people were paying attention. (The baseball players had done that in 1981.) Garvey left his job before the strike took place, and it's a little odd to have the book just end before any of that happened in the NFL.

There's some value in having this on the record, naturally. But it all comes with a rather good-sized catch. This is a really, really one-sided argument, with plenty of leftover venom. Have you ever heard lawyers talk about their side's case on television, with anyone on the opposing side possessing a brain the size of a dinosaur? There's a great deal of that here. Garvey is particularly hard on Pete Rozelle at times, even though the Commissioner was simply following orders from his bosses, the owners. (Admittedly, commissioners than had an image of someone who was only interested in the "best interests" the game - an idea that was shattered along the way.) There are few words of anything resembling praise for anyone on the other side of the table. Such a combative stance may have its advantages at the negotiating table, but it gets tiring to read so many unpleasant judgments well after the fact.

There's also a short chapter about how little the media did to support the NFLPA. I'm a little sensitive about this area, naturally. But let's remember the situation when the Players Association was growing up. The most powerful people in the sports media were old white men who wrote columns for newspapers and who had grown up with the status quo. Of course they probably would resist change in many areas. It seems like an educational effort could have been directed to that specific target in order to get another side of the story out there. Maybe some tried and failed.; a better approach could have paid dividends. The funny part of that area is that eventually, the writers became younger and started to agree with the players' positions. Nowadays, a majority of sports reporters probably are more sympathetic to the players' stances than the owners' views; they think the guys doing all the work deserve fair compensation. 

One other oddity about this book - its publisher, Temple University Press, has a policy about not publishing abusive language in its books. Therefore, a certain football team in Washington is called "R-------" throughout. I'm not sure about that decision in the light of the fact that the book was written by someone 40 years before publication, even if I can understand the company's concerns.

"Never Ask 'Why'" is good to have on the library shelf for those who seek out reference material on that era of football history. Just don't go into it thinking it might not be one-sided, or that it won't tire you out while reviewing what's between its compact covers. 

Three stars

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