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QB Eagles and the NFLPA Lie


Why was Randall Cunningham “QB Eagles?” It’s all about the Zubaz, baby.

Tecmo Super Bowl is built on an innocent lie. This lie sets TSB apart from NES titles like Play Action Football or 10-Yard Fight. The lie is easy to miss. Most players hit start before the lie appears and play TSB blind to the lie. But after the Tecmo Rabbit, after “Team NFL[1]” fades out, Tecmo flashes the lie for 3 seconds and quickly moves on to the game’s opening cinematic:

Tecmo Super Bowl NFLPA Screen

Do you see the lie? It’s a tricky to catch. Tecmo probably ignored the lie[2]. “Copyright 1991.” “Officially Licensed Product of the National Football Association Players Association.” Seems on the up and up, right?

Except in 1991, the NFLPA didn’t really exist.

Tecmo Super Bowl couldn’t have been “officially licensed” to use NFL player names because in 1991, the NFLPA wasn’t legally a union. The NFLPA lacked any authority to collectively represent NFL players[3], including granting license to Tecmo Super Bowl.

Lies and Zubaz. It’s what makes the world go around.

The Rise and Fall of the NFLPA

“QB Eagles” and the non-union union trace back to the early NFL. Before Peyton Manning was slinging pizzas like pigskins, before Jerry Rice and Walter Payton ate their Wheaties, before the ubiquity of the NFL and its players, pro football was a regional sport[4]. Teams played for in cities like Duluth, Dayton and Portsmouth[5]. Pro Football Clubs sprouted and withered like wildflowers, often awash in red ink. Players were treated like meat, battering their bodies for pennies.

According to legend, when Green Bay All-Pro center Jim Ringo requested a raise in 1964, Vince Lombardi traded him to Philadelphia. Players weren’t paid for training camp or exhibition games[6]. Even after the NFLPA’s formation in the 1950’s players had few rights. Archaic free agency rules allowed teams to hold players indefinitely and cut pay without reason. NFL players didn’t even get dental insurance until 1970, and only then after going on strike.

From the very first, players and owners feuded over free agency. Team owners held all the cards. In 1963, if a player signed with a new team, the player’s old team could demand money and draft picks from the player’s new team. Should the two teams be unable to agree, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle unilaterally imposed free agent compensation. This threat of penalty, dubbed “the Rozelle Rule,” kept teams from signing their rivals’ stars. The system was modified in 1977 and again in 1982, but free agent mobility, and in turn, player salaries, remained low. Of the nearly 1500 free agents between 1982 and 1987, only one—one!—received a contract offer from a different club.

Fed up, NFL players went on strike following week 2 of the 1987 season. NFL owners countered by quickly scraping together teams of semi-pro players and training-camp castoffs. Together with picket-crossers like Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor and Doug Flutie, The NFL played for three weeks with mostly scabs. TV networks continued airing the games. Fans continued to buy tickets.

Kneecapped by NFL owners, the NFLPA cancelled its strike on October 15, 1987. Players missed a month of paychecks without winning a single thing.

Defeated at the bargaining table, the NFLPA turned to the US Legal System. In 1987, NFLPA members filed suit against the NFL, claiming free agency rules violated antitrust laws. The case was thrown out on appeal after NFL implemented “Plan B” free agency. Plan B allowed NFL Teams to exempt their best players from free agency, leaving only marginal talent and expensive veterans.

Desperate and defeated, the NFLPA decertified as a union on November 6th, 1989. By destroying itself, the NFLPA removed the NFL’s antitrust exemptions and allowed individual players to bring suit.

No longer a union and unable to collect mandatory dues, the NFLPA used licensing fees to fund players’ lawsuits against the NFL. However, decertification stripped all collective negotiating rights from the NFLPA. Even though the NFLPA granted players’ license to companies like Tecmo, they technically didn’t have any legal standing to do so.[7]

Which brings us to Cunningham, Kosar and Kelly.

QB Eagles & the Quarterback Club

Without a CBA, player salaries stagnated. Worse, the NFL eliminated severance pay and froze players’ pension and disability benefits[8]. Kosar, Kelly and Cunningham realized their best avenue to fair compensation lay in licensing. Since the NFLPA no longer held any collective bargaining power, the three opted out of all NFLPA licensing agreements.

So in Tecmo Super Bowl, instead of Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia’s signal caller is #0 “QB Eagles.” You can thank the NFL’s unfair free agent rules and the NFLPA’s cruddy negotiating, Philly fans.

But our three QBs weren’t content to merely opt out. Miffed at the NFLPA’s mismanagement of licensing money[9], Kosar, Cunningham and Kelly joined a group of NFL QBs and formed an independent licensing entity they called “The Quarterback Club.”  The group included Dan Marino, John Elway, Boomer Esiason, Joe Montana and Warren Moon, among others.

The Quarterback ClubThe Quarterback Club quickly established a number of licensing deals and that sweet Zubaz cash started rolling in. I mean, look at the Zubaz picture heading this column; only a Beanie Baby humping a tower of pogs could be more 1990s. Ties, formal wear, polo shirts, hats, action figures, trading cards—the Quarterback Club slapped their name on anything and everything, even producing a series of “Quarterback Club” video games.[10]

The Quarterback Club sparked controversy among NFL players. As licensing was the NFLPA’s only way to fund cases against the NFL, workaday players saw the Quarterback Club as Ivory Tower superstars hoarding revenue and slowing progress. Even worse, the Quarterback Club existed in partnership with NFL Licensing, Inc., which was owned by the NFL. It seemed Cunningham, Kosar, Kelly and the Quarterback Club were stealing from the poor (NFLPA) and giving to the rich (NFL owners). Cunningham’s move to “QB Eagles” created enough friction in Philly’s locker room to spark a dumpster fire.

Free (Agency) at Last & Cunningham’s Return

The NFL/NFLPA legal battles came to a head in late 1992. In Freeman McNeil v. The National Football League, the courts declared Plan B free agency violated US antitrust laws. NFL owners, seeing the writing on the wall, drafted a new collective bargaining agreement in January of 1993. The 1993 CBA gave players better pay and installed free agency as we now know it[11]. Their proxy case won, The NFLPA recertified on January 14th 1993 and signed the CBA.

Two years of legal hurly-burly separated Tecmo Super Bowl’s Nintendo and Super Nintendo releases. In December of 1991, Tecmo had to scrub Kosar, Kelly and Cunningham from their game because the NFLPA had no real power to include their stars. With the stroke of a pen, a Minnesota circuit court turned QB Eagles back into Randall Cunningham[12]. In December of 1993, Tecmo Super Bowl  for SNES, licensed by a re-certified NFLPA, included the full roster of NFL stars.

Is it logical to say that Tecmo Super Bowl brought about NFL free agency? Maybe not. But history’s greatest football video game holds an interesting place at the crossroads of business and sport. Tecmo Super Bowl illuminated the unfairness of profit without permission. It serves as forebear to today’s amateurism vs professionalism debate regarding properties like EA’s NCAA Football. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Tecmo Super Bowl for NES started the conversation which helped level the playing field between those who play and those who profit.

…And now QB Eagles is free to sell all the Zubaz he wants.


NOTES:

[1] “Team NFL” was the branding used by the NFL’s Licensing arm on all officially licensed products—from video games to tuxedos to candy bars—in the 1990’s. The boom of branding and profits for the Shield was one of the factors that gave us our QB Club.
[2] Though the legality of NFLPA Licensing remained in question until June of 1991 (see note 3), Eric Dickerson’s 1989 lawsuit against Tecmo (more on that later) probably made it clear to the company that being “officially licensed” by the NFLPA was a smokescreen at best.
[3] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=13953163637465995077&hl=en&as_sdt=6,36&as_vis=1 Boiled down, the Judge’s order states the NFLPA had zero collective agency over NFL players between its 1989 decertification and the signing of the 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The only reason the NFLPA could “officially” license products is because its members, our three QBs excluded, chose not to challenge their status.
[4] Go to news.google.com/newspapers and browse sports sections from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. You’ll find Bowling and Horseracing often get their own dedicated pages, where NFL football is lucky to get a column or two.
[5] I’d wager outside of a few Bengals and Lions fans, no one has even heard of Portsmouth. Go Spartans!
[6] Although, by this point, NFL teams should be paying players AND the fans for NFL Pre-Season games. NFL Pre-Season games make drying paint seem exciting by comparison.
[7] http://ipjournal.law.wfu.edu/2011/03/nfl-lockout-raises-questions-about-player-image-licensing/
[8] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=8935509080321208579&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
[9] Newsday; Long Island, NY. March 31, 1991 p.15
[10] Of course, it’s also tangentially because of The Quarterback Club that we have the 8-bit abortion that is “John Elway’s Quarterback,” but not every game can be Tecmo Super Bowl, right?
[11] More or less.
[12] The Quarterback Club continued to license mostly useless garbage until being purchased by NFL Properties, Inc. in 2001.

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Keith Good

Keith Good is a future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 8-bit game geek. A perpetual optimist, he convinces himself every September that this could finally be the Cleveland Browns' year. He was once told to eff off by one of the Tecmo Browns. You can check out his other work at www.keithisgood.com and follow him on twitter @keithisgood.

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