The NFL has been investigating Ezekiel Elliott for more than a year. Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones says the league should get them done in more timely manner. Video by Drew Davison. Drew Davison ddavison@star-telegram.com
The NFL has been investigating Ezekiel Elliott for more than a year. Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones says the league should get them done in more timely manner. Video by Drew Davison. Drew Davison ddavison@star-telegram.com

Mac Engel

Zeke’s problems started with the Cowboys under a famous Tex

September 13, 2017 05:05 PM

UPDATED September 13, 2017 05:09 PM

If you want to find a root of the problems for running back Ezekiel Elliott, look no further than the Dallas Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.

Next to men like Randy White and Tony Dorsett, there is the man who loved them, paid them, and broke them, Tex Schramm. God rest his soul.

No one person did more to help the NFL establish itself over its employees than Tex. He was a pioneering sports marketer and a hard-line businessman who helped set the precedent of busting a sports union in such a way that it would allow for a league to levy the type of six-game suspension Zeke is appealing.

If the NFL Players Association were better at its job, Zeke would not be in the situation of dealing with this type of suspension. If the NFLPA had the type of lawyers who represent Major League Baseball players, this would be a dead issue. Or, at most, a one-game suspension.

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This process began in 1982, during the first NFL players strike, but turned uglier in the strike of ’87.

ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary “Year of the Scab,” which premiered Tuesday, is the story of the ’87 strike. The film focuses mostly on the Washington Redskins, and includes a lot of the Cowboys, too.

The Cowboys are vital to this story because no team did more to ensure the success of the NFL in the matter of controlling its employees than the Cowboys.

It was Tex’s idea to use replacement players, who were used and discarded like diapers. The three-game “Scab Season” created leverage against the union that allowed men like Tex to win, which, in this case, has resulted in a potential loss for the franchise he helped build.

It set the precedent to allow the league to do whatever it wants, which includes the power to potentially suspend a guy like Zeke despite circumstances around a case that are not clear; the NFLPA failed its clients to allow such broad powers, thanks to such vague language in the collective bargaining agreement.

This happened because decades ago Tex helped break a union, which also broke his team that season.

The league will say that one of the reasons it has gained in popularity is because it has had no work stoppages since ’87.

Since then, every other major pro sports league in North America has lost significant chunks of a respective season or two: MLB canceled its World Series in ’94 because of labor strife. The NHL scrapped the 2004-05 season over a labor dispute. The NBA lost significant portions of seasons in 1998 and 2011.

The NFL rolls on, in part because it rolled right over the players 30 years ago.

The NFL rolls on, in part because Tex used every means of manipulation to help break his team, and their union. Winning games was a priority for Tex; this collective bargaining agreement victory was bigger.

In this instance, the business of football was bigger than the game of football.

He leaned on players to cross the picket line, including telling established veterans such as Randy White and Tony Dorsett that, if they didn’t play, they would lose the annuity they had agreed on in their contracts.

Along with quarterback Danny White, Dorsett and White crossed the picket line, yet it was evident none of them wanted to be there.

Who desperately wanted to be there were the replacement players, many of whom had been cut during training camps. This was their shot to play in the NFL.

“I think the veterans treated us ... like we were in training camp. It was no different in that sense,” linebacker Dale Jones said in a phone interview this week. Jones was a former Tennessee player who had been with the Cowboys in training camp, but released just before the start of the season. Like so many others, he grabbed the chance to play when the strike started.

The three games he played for the Cowboys are the only NFL games of his career. He is now an assistant coach at Appalachian State.

Jones and the rest were used as pawns to show the striking NFL players how easily they could be replaced. TV ratings for Scab Games were higher than the World Series.

“I gotta be honest with you: I could not have cared less if they used me; I used them for an opportunity to play football again,” Jones said. “I just wanted to keep playing. For me, it was all about a chance to showcase what I could do.

“The whole thing was just an awesome experience.”

The scabs loved playing for America’s Team, despite the fact they were a fractured mess and led the league with 20 players who crossed the line.

The Redskins had zero.

Stuffed with castoffs, the Redskins went 3-0 in the replacement games, including a 13-7 win against the Cowboys on “Monday Night Football” at Texas Stadium. That game was the inspiration for the movie, “The Replacements” that starred Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman.

The Redskins used those three wins to help win the NFC East, and eventually the Super Bowl.

The biggest winner in the ordeal was the NFL. Led by Tex, the league broke the union, and started the process of pretty much getting whatever it wanted in labor negotiations.

That includes being the only one of the four major sports leagues not to offer guaranteed contracts, and the ability to levy a suspension based on vague language around curious circumstances. Like Tom Brady and Deflategate. Or this case with Zeke.

While Ezekiel Elliott is ultimately responsible for his own behavior, the circumstances surrounding his suspension are partly due to the success of Tex Schramm and Cowboys to take the power out of Zeke’s union.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof