In the early days of their union, his professional football player clients liked to call him Clark Kent. “Look at that face, those glasses, that conservative suit,” said John Wilbur, then a Washington Redskin. “When he gets on an issue, it’s as if he just came out of a phone booth in his Superman outfit.” For Ed Garvey, 42, executive director of the National Football League Players Association during the first in-season player strike in NFL history, the time has come for flexing his muscles.
Fans may be baffled by the issues that have left their Sundays free for long naps and the kids, but Garvey doesn’t think that they should be. “All we want,” he says, “is for the players to get their fair share of the money they generate.” To the team owners, such sentiments are the rhetorical equivalent of an assault on the Winter Palace, with lawyer Garvey poised to play Lenin. In fact, Garvey’s initial proposal was hardly a modest one: He demanded that the players be awarded 55 percent of the NFL’s gross revenues over the next five years. When the owners refused even to consider the idea, Garvey and the NFLPA offered to settle for 50 percent of the league’s TV revenues—$1.6 billion over four years. The owners counter-offered $1.6 billion over five years, but balked at Garvey’s proposal of a salary scale that would eliminate individual bargaining between players and management. “Individual bargaining won’t work in pro football,” insists Garvey. “It’s the only sport in which the owners share most revenues. They have eliminated any reward for either winning or competing for star players.”
That proposition is highly debatable, but Edward Robert Garvey has never shrunk from an argument. The only son of conservative Irish Catholic parents in Burlington, Wis. (pop. 8,385), he was a 140-pound high school halfback until he injured his knee. A political science major at the University of Wisconsin, he was elected student body president in his senior year. After graduation, he became president of the National Student Association, and in 1963 began a two-year hitch as a lieutenant in Army intelligence. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin law school in 1969, he joined the Minneapolis firm of Lindquist & Vennum. A year later Baltimore Colt tight end John Mackey, then president of the fledgling NFLPA, approached the firm about representing the union. Partner Leonard Lindquist was puzzled by the written request, which identified Mackey as a tight end. “He asked me, ‘Shouldn’t that be a right end?’ ” Garvey recalls. “I think I was chosen partly because I’m not sure he had ever been to a game.”
By the time the union’s first round of negotiations had ended in 1971, the players were sufficiently impressed with Garvey to offer him the job of executive director. At first Garvey refused—he and his wife, Betty, had just bought a home and were reluctant to relocate in Washington—but he relented when the union persisted. Today he and Betty live in Chevy Chase, Md., with their daughters, Pamela, 20, Kathleen, 13, and Lizzy, 10.
Among the fringe benefits Garvey has accrued in his 11-year career with the NFLPA is the undisguised enmity of league commissioner Pete Rozelle, whom he regards as a compliant servant of his employers, the owners. “I stopped believing Rozelle was neutral when I stopped believing in the tooth fairy,” says Garvey. The commissioner should be hired by both the players and the owners, he feels, but adds, “The owners obviously don’t like the idea—it smacks of fairness.” For his part, Rozelle once angrily accused Garvey of being bitter that he’d graduated from Wisconsin too early to take part in the radical bombing of the Army Mathematics Research Center there in 1970—an episode in which a student was killed. Unruffled by such antagonism, Garvey, who is paid $100,000 a year, still has the support of the players. “He’s held this union together like a rubber band,” says NFLPA President Gene Upshaw of the Los Angeles Raiders. “Now he’s beginning to see what we can do.”