The Players All-Star Season
There is a wonderful section of BUCPOWER.COM dedicated to the “B-Bucs,” the replacement players that donned the orange and white during the NFL strike of 1987. Much has been written about the 1987 strike and the odd sight of UPS drivers and bar bouncers appearing in nationally televised NFL games.
But did you know that the 1982 strike saw two professional football games played during the otherwise painful 57-day players strike? Not only were there games, but a handful of Tampa Bay Buccaneer players, including future Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon participated. They were the P.A.S.S games.
P.A.S.S stood for the Players All-Star Season and was the brainchild of NFL Players Association (NFLPA) president Gene Upshaw and media mogul Ted Turner. As the 1982 season grew closer, the players realized that the owners were not going to capitulate to their demands that the players collect 55% of all NFL revenue. In an attempt to garner the loyalty of fans, the players decided to field 28 teams under the auspices of the NFL Players Association. The games would be fully funded by the $500,000 that Ted Turner had paid the NFLPA for the rights to televise the games on WTBS, his cable “super-station.”
The NFL owners threatened to sue the players in state courts, stating that the games would violate the standard NFL players contract which prohibited unsanctioned professional football games. Players from Dallas, Buffalo and St. Louis were barred from participating at first by the local courts so the idea of 28 NFLPA teams fell by the wayside. Instead, Upshaw, Turner and a man by the name of Shelly Saltman formed six “all-star” teams featuring players from each of the NFL’s six conferences (AFC East, Central and West; NFC East, Central and West).
“All-Star” is a generous term for the players that participated. While future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon played, the majority of the 80 players on the rosters were journeymen that were looking to score a quick $3,000 (the winners share) or $2,500 (the losers share) to make their mortgage payments during the strike. Being unsanctioned by the NFL, the players also had to be very careful to avoid injury and were required to use an insurance policy that the NFLPA had taken out.
On Monday, September 20 at the exact second the Green Bay Packers completed their 27-19 victory over the New York Giants, the NFL players walked out. The first victim of the strike was a Thursday night game between the Falcons and Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. ABC, which was set to broadcast the game, was forced to show the movie “The Cheap Detective,” a parody of Humphrey Bogart movies starring Peter Falk. Cheap was pretty much what football fans had to look forward to for the first weekend of the strike.
That weekend, no football games were played and fans were left to either watch a re-broadcast of the 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl from the previous season on CBS or a Canadian Football League double-header on NBC (go Argonauts!). It was the best the networks could do at the time, but things would get even more ridiculous the next weekend.
On October 6 a Washington D.C judge ruled that the NFL had no right to prevent players from playing in extra games. The decision stunned the owners who immediately filed an appeal. In the meantime the NFLPA was free to proceed with its games, so the 80 volunteers of P.A.S.S took to the practice fields. The Bucs that participated were Selmon, Kevin House, James Owens, Larry Swider, Cedric Brown, Neal Colzie and Charley Hannah.
The second weekend of no football saw CBS trot out a slate of Division III college games. In a bizarre football footnote, legendary broadcasting duo Pat Summerall and John Madden did the play-by-play and color for the titanic struggle between Wittenberg and Baldwin-Wallace. This is not a joke. The game was carried live on national TV by CBS Sports as were games between Occidental and San Diego University and the always eagerly anticipated Wisconsin-Oskosh vs. Wisconsin-Stout grudge match.
CBS had to broadcast Division III football because Ted Turner prevented them from broadcasting Division I football on Sundays. CBS, ABC and WTBS had broadcast rights to Division I football. If any of the networks wanted to carry extra games, the other two networks had to grant them permission. CBS, desperate for Sunday afternoon programming (NBC beat them to the punch on the CFL), asked for the permission of ABC and WTBS and were told no by Turner. Seeing as how Turner would be broadcasting the NFLPA game on the following Sunday, it is logical to see why he would refuse CBS’s request.
The first game was on October 17 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. While the quality of the play was questionable, it was a dramatic back-and-forth affair. The NFC took a 23-22 lead with just over a minute to play on a 45-yard field goal by Mark Moseley of the Washington Redskins. There is very little in the way of a box score for this game online. I did find a statistical blurb on the Professional Football Researchers Association website stating the James Owens compiled 21 yards rushing in his time on the field. In addition to the statistical blurb, a story in the October 18, 1982 edition of the New York Times mentions Lee Roy Selmon’s role in securing victory for the NFC squad.
Wrote Times reporter Frank Litsky about the lack of hard-hitting by the worried-to-be-seriously-injured players, “In the last minute of the game, Lee Roy Selmon of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, roared in on Don Strock, the Miami Dolphins quarterback, as Strock was about to pass. Instead of grabbing the quarterback and sacking him, Selmon hit Strock’s passing arm, and the pass floated away harmlessly.”
While the game had no meaning and was sparsely attended (fewer than 5,000 in attendance in 55,000 seat RFK Stadium), the players had made a point. They could play professional football games without need of the NFL owners and do so in a short period of time.
The next night another game was played, this time in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The AFC won this contest 31-27. However, even fewer fans attended (3,000 in a 100,000 seat stadium). A few days after the two P.A.S.S games, the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. ruled in the owners favor. The teams in fact could sue in state courts to enforce the standard player contract. That proved to be the death knell for the P.A.S.S games, but chances are the following reasons would have been sufficient to kill the idea:
Attendance was weak and the prices for tickets (upwards of $15 in 1982 money) were cost prohibitive.
The cable television network WTBS only had 21 million viewers in 1982, so very few people could see the games.
The quality of the play was poor as most players were trying to prevent being injured.
There were not enough players to make the P.A.S.S concept work for the long-term. Four players (Rich Walker, John Riggins, John Spagnola, Louie Giamonna, Phil Tabor and the Buccaneers' very own James Owens) flew across country the moment the D.C game ended so they could play the very next day in the Coliseum!
The P.A.S.S experiment has been little noted by history. The book The League by David Harris makes a passing mention while the Professional Football Researchers Association has a small section on the games. Reading back issues of the New York Times allowed me to get details on the games themselves. However, I think these games should be remembered for two very valid reasons.
1. The first is that this story gives yet more of a historical perspective on the professional career of Lee Roy Selmon. Superstar he was, Selmon was willing to sacrifice his career by being injured in one of these games. While as a fan, I disagree with the concept of NFL strikes, I hand it to Selmon for standing by what he believed in. In addition to Selmon, other notable players to take the risk were John Riggins (Hall of Famer), Harry Carson (Hall of Famer) and Roy Yary (Hall of Famer). Unfortunately, the second reason for remembering the P.A.S.S games is more of an infamous one.
2. In 1982, the NFLPA showed that in just over one week they could put together a slate of games without the need of NFL owners. Five years later, the NFLPA would see that in just over a week the NFL owners could put on NFL games without the players. Perhaps the owners would have come up with the B-Bucs and other replacement teams anyway, but I can’t help but think that the P.A.S.S league came back to bite the players in the A.S.S.
Denis Crawford, April 2008