Scab Story: The 1987 NFL Strike

The specter of an extended work stoppage means we don’t know exactly when we’ll get to watch pro football again. We’re not experts on the lockout, but we thought this might be a good time to fill you in on the details of the NFL’s last major labor crisis, 1987’s midseason player strike.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

What were the players after?

Free agency. The players had ostensibly had free agency for a decade, but there was a major hurdle to their movement from team to team. The “Rozelle Rule” stated that if a team signed a free agent from another squad, the commissioner could compensate the player’s original team with draft picks or players from his new team. This rule hampered players’ movement in search of bigger paychecks, especially since the compensation to players’ former teams could be as steep as two first-round draft picks.

When did the players decide to strike?

The strike began after the season’s second week of games. The players likely assumed that this tactic would give them leverage, since TV networks would need their games to fill out the following week’s schedules. When the players pulled the same maneuver in 1982, the league’s schedule ended up being reduced from 16 games to nine for the season. The players’ logic was that even if the owners had the nerve to toss together replacement teams, there was no way TV stations would air terrible football.

This time around, though, the owners decided to call the players’ bluff. The NFL canceled Week 3’s games – thereby reducing the season to 15 games – and teams began assembling replacement players. As it turned out, the TV affiliates were happy to show the replacement players’ games. As NFL stars walked picket lines outside of their teams’ headquarters, personnel men scrambled to throw together rosters that could take the field for Week 4.

Did these replacement teams have hilariously punny nicknames?

So glad that you asked. Clare Farnsworth compiled the following brilliant list for a 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story: the Los Angeles Shams, the Chicago Spare Bears, the Seattle Sea-Scabs, the New Orleans Saint Elsewheres, the Miami Dol-Finks, and the San Francisco Phoney-Niners.

Did any of the replacement players turn out to be good?

That really depends definition of “good.” Remember, the NFL basically had less than two weeks to toss together 28 complete rosters, so they weren’t particularly picky about whom they suited up. Many of the replacement players were guys who had been cut during training camp or passed over during the draft. Or if a team couldn’t find that sort of luminary, they’d look for random guys who happened to be big, like bouncers.

The best replacement player was probably Houston Oilers linebacker Eugene Seale, who ran back an interception return for a TD in the team’s first replacement-player game. He stuck around with the Oilers until 1992 and even made the All-Pro team as a special teams ace in 1988. Replacement Saints QB John Fourcade kicked around in the league until 1990, too.

Did any of the replacement players go on to better things?

There’s where things get interesting. Hip-hop fans might have recognized a young replacement defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams: Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who appeared as a backup in two games.

There was also some legitimate football expertise on the replacement rosters. The Chicago Spare Bears boasted future New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton at quarterback. Payton’s play turned out to be significantly less brilliant than his play-calling as a coach. Payton only completed eight of 23 pass attempts in three games while throwing an interception and taking seven sacks. He racked up a putrid QB rating of 27.3 for his efforts.

Current UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel also suited up during the strike; he went 2-0 as the San Diego Chargers’ replacement starter.

What happened to the actual players in their strike?

The Players Association certainly didn’t put on a clinic in striking solidarity. Some players immediately crossed the picket line, most notably New York Jets star defensive end Mark Gastineau, who claimed he needed the money to pay alimony. (Gastineau would end up scuffling with a teammate who spat in his face as he crossed the picket line one morning.)

Other star players like 49ers QB Joe Montana, Seahawks wideout Steve Largent (who torched the replacement Lions for 261 yards receiving in a single game), Raiders lineman Howie Long, and Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett followed suit, and the Players Association started to realize it was sunk. After 24 days of striking, the players returned to work.

Oddly, even after the strike ended, the replacement teams took the field one more time. The players ended their strike on a Thursday, only to be informed by the owners that they had missed the deadline for being eligible to play in Week 6 by one day. The real NFL squads returned to the field for Week 7.

So who won?

In the short term, the owners won a huge victory. The great Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated opened his article on the strike’s end by writing, “The NFL players association got hammered in its 24-day strike…” The players called off the strike and returned to work without a new collective bargaining agreement. They didn’t get the free agency concession they were looking for, either. In short, the whole episode was something of a debacle.

Eventually the players won a series of court battles that enabled them to snag free agency and a set share of league revenues. The players’ union, which had decertified after losing the strike, didn’t officially reform as a union until 1993.

The other winners were the Washington Redskins, who had an odd knack for winning the Super Bowl in abbreviated strike years. The Skins’ replacement team went 3-0, and when the big boys came back they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, just as they had after the shortened 1982 season.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.