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The Spotlight Shines Again on Players from the NFL’s ‘Year of the Scab’
September 12, 2017  | By Roger Catlin

For the fifth year in a row, the Washington NFL team began its season with a loss Sunday. No news here: it looks like it might be another long season.

Let us turn back, then, to Washington’s 1980s heyday at RFK Stadium, with the help of two absorbing new films in ESPN’s very consistent 30 for 30 documentary series.

(Never mind the plainly racist team name and the long struggle to try and change it — which would make a good third documentary. For now, it will explain why we’re not using it, as some news organizations have also decided).

The longer of the two films, John Dorsey’s Year of the Scab (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), recounts the year of the NFL strike in 1987 when management of the D.C. team was determined to keep the lucrative weekly games going even without their big stars.

To do so, they quickly hired an all rookie squad of team has-beens, and many more who never got a shot in the first place — a generally motley crew that also included a guy they sprung from prison on work release to serve as quarterback after the first one chosen briefly quit when rattled by the intense picket lines, where shouts of “Scab!” and other things were thrown.

Indeed, the glass was shattered of one of the first busloads of replacement players arriving at the Herndon, Va., practice site the first day.

Fans joined in the protests, and thousands turned in their season tickets nationwide rather than watching a field of nobodies struggle through these fake games.

Some teams, notably Dallas, tried to lure back striking players one by one by dangling paychecks. But the coaching squad in Washington was intent on keeping the replacements intact, trying to instill an underdog spirit in lieu of skills.

But something weird happened in that series of games that began in late September 1987 — Washington started winning big. Startled and delighted fans at RFK started chanting “Stay on Strike!” a pointed message to their former heroes. A win is a win, even if it comes from these no-names.

It kept happening, even when they faced teams that were largely reconstituted, such as their rival Dallas. But as Dorsey points out, teams that were comprised of replacements alongside regular players never managed to bridge their differences and work together (and it didn’t get better later when strikers had to join those who had broken the line).

The ragtag underdogs, with a common purpose and nothing to lose, who were also having the times of their lives. In cities where the teams weren’t so good, attendance plummeted. A rout against the Giants looked like it was played before dozens.

As time went on, more players crossed picket lines to reclaim their positions; veterans figured they might not have that many years left to play.

Eventually, the player’s union caved and the month of “scab-ball,” as it was called, ended as quickly as it began.

But while their gutty playing put Washington in a great position for a season, the replacements never got to share in the season’s glories. Dorsey’s interviews with many of the replacements — tracked down back at their regular jobs as teachers, real estate guys, house painters, warehouse supervisors and part time pee wee coaches — still look back at the experience as if it were a dream, a story to tell grandchildren — or ESPN documentarians — decades later, but also for some of them a source of pain in the manner in which their effort was forgotten. Until tonight, that is.

A second reminder of how formidable the Washington team was in the 1980s comes in the shorter second film at 9:30 p.m., Strike Team.

Despite the title, it has nothing to do with a labor dispute. Instead, it’s about an audacious (and audaciously successful) ploy by the U.S. Marshals to round up nearly 100 fugitives at once with some irresistible bait for local fans: Free game tickets.

Scores of fugitives were tracked down with news that they were winners. They were told that a new sports network was giving the hard-to-obtain tickets away in order to promote their product.

They were all to come down to the civic center on game day for a pregame celebration. Marshals dressed as masters of ceremony, cheerleaders, and in the case of one who might have been too recognizable as a cop, a chicken costume.

As the entertaining film by Willie Ebersol shows, that chicken costume had to be altered so its officer could still pack his gun. A lot of things could go wrong.

And yet, it didn’t. Groups were escorted to the big party room in manageable groups of 14. Those who might have been packing were given balloons to identify them further. The emcee welcomed them and told them they were now going to get a big surprise. The word "surprise" was the cue for dozens of armed police to enter. “You’re all under arrest!”

Year of the Scab benefits from a wealth of period news conferences and game footage, but Strike Team does even better, using a trove of previously unseen footage of the planning of the sting, and every step of its implementation.

At a screening of Strike Team at the U.S. Marshals Service headquarters in Arlington, Va., last week, a lot of the participants of that event 32 years ago reunited and talked about how it was not only the biggest thing ever for the Marshals, who normally don’t get the recognition for their dangerous job, it was also the most fun.

And so is the film, which is cut like an 80s action series — the lurid colors of the period footage and the awesome mustaches of the Marshals matched with the sizzle of funk music of the era — keeping up the party atmosphere that must have lured the fugitives in the first place.

I have to say, though, even though I don’t have any outstanding warrants, being invited to the U.S. Marshals headquarters for the special screening made me think I was falling for the same trick.

Lucky you, you can stay at home tonight and watch both with no such worries.

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