Doug Flutie’s rise to darlinghood in Buffalo provides great irony. That’s a union town. He’s a scab.
Flutie leads the Bills into what is for the time being known as Raljon Friday night as one of the final few picket-crossers from the NFL players’ strike of 1987 still in cleats. The other leftover scabs—only the Broncos’ David Diaz-Infante and the Bengals’ Darrick Brilz, according to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA)—were no-names then, as now. Flutie was huge, if only figuratively, then and now. When he crossed to play for the New England Patriots, Flutie helped far more than the aforementioned anonymities to break the union. The NFLPA never recovered from the beating the owners gave it during that work stoppage.
Pro-labor folks have a reputation for sticking together, for having a “Which Side Are You On?” mentality and an elephant’s memory when it comes to traitors. So you’d think the mostly blue-collared Bills faithful in that dying steel town would be inclined to stuff Flutie’s fanny into a barrel and throw him over nearby Niagara Falls. But instead, he’s as popular as the chicken wings, newly signed to a $22 million contract and with a movie about his life in the works. And, although Buffalonians should want to see him in a box, instead he’s on a box—of Flutie Flakes, his own cereal.
Flutie didn’t scab for the money. He was already set for life financially when he scampered to the other side of the picket line. He crossed just so he could play before the hometown fans in New England, at a time when his ego needed a boost a lot more than his wallet.
Flutie had been a schoolboy gridiron hero in nearby Natick, Mass., and then stuck around to play for Boston College. In one play, the Hail Mary pass to Gerard Phelan that beat Miami 37-35 during his senior year, Flutie became the most famous and beloved athlete in the school’s history. That play also won him the 1984 Heisman Trophy and encouraged the powers that be in the fledgling USFL to take drastic steps to get Flutie.
Along with an eight-figure contract, Flutie got the right to pick the team he would play for and was guaranteed a starting position. He chose the New Jersey Generals, a Donald Trump-owned Goliath. (Flutie is part of another dying breed, one of the last USFL veterans still playing pro ball, along with Steve Young and Sean Landeta.)
But it took a while for the old Flutie magic to catch up with him in the pros. The Generals, though loaded with big-name talent—he had fellow Heisman winner Herschel Walker in the backfield with him—never won a title. And despite some deep pockets and big dreams, the USFL never found a way to compete with the NFL.
The USFL lawsuit against the NFL went to trial in 1986, after the league’s third season. It alleged that the old league’s willful violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act were preventing their league from attaining success. USFL owners asked for $1.7 billion. In one of the more bizarre decisions in the history of sports litigation, a jury ruled that the NFL owners and their partners had indeed conspired to stifle competition—but then it granted the plaintiffs just $1 in damages.
Under federal antitrust law, the award was automatically trebled, bringing the total verdict to $3. A week after the trial ended, the USFL folded.
Flutie was picked up by the Chicago Bears, the reigning Super Bowl champions. Coach Mike Ditka liked Flutie OK, but Jim McMahon, the Bears starting quarterback and conscience, publicly referred to him as “America’s Midget” and “Bambi.” And when Flutie subbed for the oft-injured McMahon, as in the 1986 playoff loss to the underdog Redskins, he didn’t convince anybody in the Bears locker room or anywhere else in Chicago that little guys could play QB in the NFL.
So when the labor strife cropped up in early 1987, Bears management essentially let Flutie, whose self-esteem tank was on E thanks to McMahon, walk away to the Patriots. The team knew he would cross the picket line. Just as they had broken the USFL, the owners had a plan to bust the union: They fielded “replacement” squads made up of everybody good enough to have been cut by an NFL team in the previous decade, plus a few disloyal union members.
At the beginning of the strike, the scabs, totaling more than 1,000, included just 90 union members. That number grew as the weeks went by. The level of play was atrocious.
(David Letterman’s “Top 10 Slogans of the Scab NFL” from Oct. 8, 1987:
10. We’re not football players…but we play them on TV!
9. Come for the refund…stay for the game!
8. Bring a helmet and join the fun!
7. Get spit on by Lawrence Taylor!
6. It still beats arena football!
5. Out-of-condition athletes guarantee plenty of personal injuries!
4. We have a fine selection of magazines!
3. Look! It’s my old gym teacher!
2. Enough beer and you won’t know the difference!
1. It’s scab-tastic!)
But to the union, the impact of the treason was no joke.
“The scab players killed the strike,” says Meg Mesarole, who co-authored a 1997 study of the history of collective bargaining in pro sports. “That, and the networks that covered the scab games like they were real, and the fans who went to the scab games.”
Mesarole’s study notes that the striking players lost $90 million in salaries during the monthlong work stoppage, while scabs and owners made money. The NFLPA was ruined. “To this day,” reads Mesarole’s report, “it remains the weakling of professional sports unions.”
When the real players went back to work, Flutie’s size kept him on the bench, and nostalgia kept him on New England’s roster until 1989. When the Pats cut him, he went off to Canada and thrived in the CFL, where the wide-open style of play is better suited to quick little men. He won six CFL Most Outstanding Player Awards and three Grey Cups (the equivalent of our Super Bowl). He told his agent to get him back in the NFL years ago but never got any bites until last season, when the Bills offered him a minimum salary to come to camp. When highly paid starter Rob Johnson went down, Flutie first took over the team and then, after leading the Bills to an unlikely playoff berth, took over the town.
Given his past, Buffalo is among the unlikeliest cities to pick the scab. They like their labor up there, dating back to the days when Bethlehem Steel was the biggest game around. The big plant is shut down now, but the pro-union bent remains. For proof, just look on the Bills’ sidelines, where even the cheerleaders want union cards. That’s right: In 1994, the Bills’ cheerleading squad, the Jills, got organized and became the first such group ever certified as a bargaining unit by the National Labor Relations Board.
I called Local 41 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Buffalo chapter that represented the Jills when they first organized, to ask if members thought it odd that a scab could be so worshiped.
“Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think most people up here really know that about him. Either that or they don’t remember it, because he’s huge here,” said Local 41 spokesperson Jim Voye.
Maybe time heals all wounds. Or maybe Lombardi was right: Winning is the only thing. —Dave McKenna