NFL Labor: 'All of them are making money so they all should be happy.'
Former Steelers defensive back Jack Butler on the NFL's labor situation: "I don't pay any attention to it. I have my own problems to fix up."
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The working conditions when the players union did not exist in the National Football League were quite a contrast to what they have today.
"Benefits? Yoi!" exclaimed Bill Priatko at the mere mention of the word. "If you got hurt, you went home. I knew guys who broke their legs and they sent them home. You went home and healed up. There was no injured reserve or stuff like that. Your contract expired when you got hurt."
This was the NFL of the 1950s, when Priatko played linebacker for the Steelers and Cleveland Browns. He notes quickly that Art Rooney Sr. took care of his players better than most, but there was no unified league-wide health care, no pension, no other benefits to speak of around the league. You received your meager salary, your uniform and that was about it.
"It was about 1959 when they started to form the players union where they started to moan about having some benefits and things like that," Priatko said. "Up until that point, it was just hit and miss and nobody said anything. We were just glad to play. It's unbelievable when you think about it. Benefits were almost nonexistent."
Priatko, who played linebacker at Pitt and lives in North Huntingdon, does not begrudge what today's players get, nor what they're fighting for. But he and another Steelers player from the '50s, Jack Butler, scratch their heads in wonder at what has become a $9 billion annual business that is shut down through the lockout after the collective bargaining agreement expired March 12.
"It's both sides," Butler said, spreading the blame for the inability of the players and owners to come to terms on a new labor agreement. "All of them are making money so they all should be happy. I don't pay any attention to it. I have my own problems to fix up."
Butler, 83, retired several years ago after spending more than 40 years as head of the Blesto scouting combine following his forced retirement from football. He has had both knees replaced, the result of playing football. One knee injury not only abruptly ended his career but nearly ended his life in 1959. He still had a cast on it in 1963, partly because a staph infection set in. He has walked with a limp since.
Neither old Steeler complains and, in fact, Butler said he would go back and play in a heartbeat under the same conditions if he could and has no regrets about the money he made, the times in which he played or the money in the game today. It's just that the two can't figure out how there can be so much money in today's game and so much unhappiness and unwillingness to find a way to share it.
"Nine billion! Hey, let's divvy it all up then," Butler said. "High financing, that's beyond me, but I think they're all doing very well and I can't see the fighting. That's a lot of money.
"You buy a player's jersey now, it's $150. That was a week's salary back then."
Priatko, 79, played at North Braddock High School with teammate and future Steelers running back Fran Rogel. He went into the service after graduating from Pitt and then signed as a free agent with Green Bay in 1957, the same year the Packers made Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The Packers gave Priatko a $500 signing bonus, and he did not complain for two reasons.
One: "I thought I was a millionaire; it paid for our whole wedding."
Two: "Paul Hornung was the No. 1 draft choice in the league, the Heisman Trophy winner and he got a $2,000 bonus."
Priatko made the Packers final roster but three days later, and before the first game, he was placed on their taxi (think practice) squad to make room for another veteran linebacker. The Steelers then picked him up and he became teammates again with Rogel.
Not only were the benefits scant in the '50s, so were the rosters. Each roster had 33 players with one or two more on the taxi squad. Today's rosters are 53, plus eight more on the practice squad plus unlimited on injured reserve. Thus, the '50s players had to work harder for less too -- and Butler can't remember any of them ever comparing themselves to slaves the way running backs Adrian Pederson and Rashard Mendenhall did recently.
"I get a big kick out of the guys who said they're treated like slaves. That's an absolute disgrace," Butler said. "The average salary is almost $2 million. I don't know what they're complaining about. I hate to tell you this, I figured it out the other day and I don't know why: I made $72,000 total in nine years. That's $8,000 a year. I thought I was making a lot of money, you know? If you don't know any difference, what's the difference?"
Butler went into coaching and then scouting after his career ended in near tragedy with a severe knee injury. Priatko was a salesman for Wrigley chewing gum for 11 years before he earned his master's degree from Pitt and spent the rest of his career as a teacher, coach and administrator. He was the head football coach at Swissvale High School, defensive coordinator at California University of Pa., assistant athletic director at Robert Morris and then athletic director at Yough High School, where he retired.
Neither regret a thing and neither will take sides in the current labor dispute. Priatko met Chuck Noll and Dick LeBeau with the Browns in 1959 and he and LeBeau remain fast friends.
"I wasn't around the league for a long time but I appreciate the time I did spend," Priatko said.
"We were taught by our parents to appreciate what we had and work hard for what we got. When I had an opportunity to play in the NFL, it created a sense of gratefulness. You were grateful for what they were giving you. You didn't stop to realize the benefits and other things maybe we were entitled to.
First Published May 12, 2011 12:00 am