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Which Side Is He On?

If Hollywood ever cranks out a sequel to The Replacements, the feel-good anti-labor smash of the summer, then Brad Johnson should star as himself. Just like the fictional character Keanu Reeves plays in the film, Johnson is both a quarterback for D.C.’s pro football team and a scab.

This summer, area McDonald’s owners hoped to exploit the hype surrounding the Redskins during the off-season. So when searching for a TV spokesmodel to publicize a weighty seasonal promotion—buy one Quarter Pounder at regular price, get a second for a quarter—they chose Johnson as their franchise player.

Getting the nine-year veteran in on the project, however, could have proved problematic: The McDonald’s campaign came in the early days of the ongoing national strike by members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), two major actors’ unions. In May, those groups had called for work on most TV and radio commercials to cease until the resolution of a dispute centering on the way advertising agencies compensate actors for ads broadcast on cable and over the Internet. Basically, the unions accused the advertisers of systematically underpaying—or simply not paying—actors for commercials shown on new media.

Johnson, 32, couldn’t claim ignorance of the actors’ strike. Though he’s not a member of either AFTRA or SAG, his union, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), had advised its constituents to honor the pickets. And, according to the NFLPA, the players’ support for their AFL-CIO brothers has, on the whole, been tremendous.

“We sent a letter to our executive committee members and reached out to every player, saying we’d hope that they don’t support doing any commercials that would go against the principles of this strike,” says Carl Francis, spokesperson for the NFLPA. “There’s only so much we can do in asking for their support. You can’t fine the players, you can’t punish them. We just explain that labor needs the support of labor.”

But Johnson, who, according to the NFLPA has the highest salary of any Redskins player this season, showed himself to be more of a company man. He flouted his own union’s guidance and agreed to be in the spots.

According to AFTRA and SAG, McDonald’s had been filming commercials using scab actors in many markets since the job action began. The actors’ unions learned before the shoot that McDonald’s intended to film spots with the Redskins quarterback, and members and officials with the Washington-area chapter attempted to use contacts on the team and within the NFLPA to persuade him to beg off the project.

When those attempts failed, the strikers came to RFK Stadium on the day the ads were filmed and set up a picket line, thinking that it might keep Johnson from breaking ranks with his peers.

But, just like Keanu in the movies, Johnson crossed.

“He drove right through our picket line in his limousine,” says Patricia O’Donnell, executive director of the local AFTRA/SAG chapter. “He knew very well what was going on. Some of our people went up to the limo when it stopped and asked him not to do the commercials, but he went ahead and did them. We were shocked that he crossed.”

According to the NFLPA, Johnson is the only Redskins player to cross the AFTRA/SAG line as far as the union is aware. He is not, however, the only celebrity scab. Tiger Woods shot a commercial for Buick, for example, and Burger King produced an ad featuring the Backstreet Boys over the summer. But whereas Johnson scabbed right here in his hometown, both Woods and the Boys traveled to Canada to at least give the appearance of supporting the actors’ strike. (Britney Spears, meanwhile, announced a week after Johnson’s crossing that she was shelving an Herbal Essence promotion.)

The scab TV campaign that features Johnson is dubbed “Redskins Event” by the Greater Washington D.C. McDonald’s Cooperative, an alliance of around 350 local franchises. It was put together by Arnold Communications, a McLean firm that calls itself the largest advertising agency in the D.C. area and boasts annual billings of better than $150 million.

In the campaign’s first installment, the quarterback is seen throwing footballs to an off-camera receiver while mulling over the virtues of the Quarter Pounder with a ballboy wearing a McDonald’s uniform and a drive-in headset. A second ad finds Johnson talking about the sandwich while seated in a sauna next to a large sweaty man who is ostensibly also a football player. (Talk about art imitating life: To fill the large-sweaty-man role, producers hired a local actor whose only prior thespian experience came playing a scab football player in The Replacements, which was also shot locally.)

Phil Williams, Johnson’s Atlanta-based agent, says his client never hinted that he wouldn’t take the work from McDonald’s. Before the ads were filmed, Williams says, he had a brief chat with Johnson about the implications of filming during a strike. The Skins QB then made the decision on his own to go ahead with the shoot.

“As far as Brad’s concerned, basically he just honored a contract to do those [McDonald’s] commercials, and he hasn’t done any since,” Williams says. “It really didn’t seem like that big a deal. Just a blip to us, really. It’s a dead issue.”

McDonald’s spokesperson Julie Dickson also characterizes the issue as dead, adding that the Quarter Pounder campaign has now run its course and is no longer being broadcast. Dickson says that she is unaware of any AFTRA/SAG pickets against McDonald’s in the D.C. area as a result of the commercial shoots.

“McDonald’s has a business to run,” Dickson says. “Brad Johnson made the decision to keep his commitment. He was great to work with.”

The still-striking actors, however, aren’t ready to move on just yet. Officials of AFTRA/SAG intend to bring up the quarterback’s crossing of the picket line at a future board meeting and to discuss sanctioning Johnson for his betrayal.

Because Johnson doesn’t belong to the actors’ unions, the most severe punishment the board could hand down is a recommendation that he be rejected should he ever apply for membership. O’Donnell admits that such a sanction would be “purely symbolic,” but says she’d support it anyway. Anything to let the quarterback know that the union intends to remember what he did. Once a scab, always a scab.

“I don’t know what McDonald’s paid Brad Johnson,” O’Donnell says, “but I know it wasn’t enough for him to sell out the way he did.” —Dave McKenna