- Three-Week Professionals: Inside the 1987 NFL Players’ Strike by Ted Kluck
In September 1987, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) walked out after the season’s second week. This was the organization’s third work stoppage since 1974. Players sought free agency, while owners hoped to expand the draft, implement a rookie wage scale, and reduce player salaries that had become inflated during the 1983–85 United States Football League (USFL) era. For most of the twenty-four-day strike, the NFL maintained an on-field and televised presence by assembling teams of “replacements” (more colloquially called “scabs”), including former NFL and USFL athletes. A few stars, including Joe Montana, famously crossed the picket line. Union players returned in mid-October without a contract, and they only secured free agency two years later, in 1989, after court cases and legal maneuverings by the NFLPA.
Sportswriter Ted Kluck salvages stories of the NFL’s last strike season in Three-Week Professionals: Inside the 1987 NFL Players’ Strike. Kluck interviewed sixteen individuals (listed in the acknowledgments), including both NFL stars and obscure replacement athletes. The resulting book offers insights into the 1987 season, which took place in an era of deindustrialization, organized labor’s decline, and conservative ascendancy. We learn, for example, that, on October 4, buses carrying the Detroit Lions were prepared to plow through barricades outside the Pontiac Silverdome erected by irate, prounion fans—but [End Page 127] there were no barricades and virtually no protesters (84). Jeff Kemp recalls praying with his wife and fellow players about the decision to honor a picket line or a contract; Kemp chose the latter (88). While the league’s biggest stars wanted free agency, reserves were more concerned about pensions and severance (69).
Although this slim volume offers fascinating tidbits, Kluck rarely imposes order on the stories he has unearthed. In places, the narrative confusingly jumps between the 1970s and the present, while important details regarding the strike or NFLPA history are buried in the middle of chapters. Several sections of the book are based on the author’s viewing of 1987 games—via VHS tapes or DVDs purchased on the Internet—and embellished with the author’s present-tense commentary on 1980s television commercials, broadcasting styles, uniforms, and equipment. Kluck frequently shares more personal reflections than the subject material necessitates. He opens the book by recounting his own professional football career (he briefly suited up for an indoor league in 2006) and closes by reminiscing about Walter Payton and the 1980s Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, the book does little to articulate clearly the strike’s causes, development, or resolution. The dust jacket’s claim that readers will “come to realize the [strike’s] impact . . . on the world’s most lucrative sports league” is overstated. Readers who seek a coherent account of the 1987 strike and its significance should consult Michael Oriard’s Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport (2007) or Richard Crepeau’s NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime (2015).
Three-Week Professionals succeeds in reviving stories of the players, coaches, and broadcasts of the strike-marred 1987 NFL season. While suitable for a popular audience, this volume will leave many scholars looking for more.