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A double-asterisk season

IN a sports season where there are cork bats for hitters and emery boards for pitchers, it may come as no shock to learn that major-league baseball owners conspired against their free agents back in 1985. Nor is it a surprise that the free-agency issue has moved across town - from the bleachers of professional baseball to the gridiron of professional football. ``Asterisk'' seasons, of course, have become increasingly frequent in major-league sports, though seldom do they mark two major-league sports the same year, as the statistical ledgers for calendar-year 1987 will now register. Asterisk seasons are years that represent a key change in the sport - such as when football players went out on strike for 57 days in 1982, or when baseball shifted to free-agency status back in 1976. Under free agency, a player can, after a certain number of years, change teams when the player's contract expires. Baseball now has free agency. Professional football does not - and that's the primary dispute fueling the current clash between NFL owners and players. The union representing the league's 1,500 players wants free agency.

Football management argues that free agency would injure the sport by driving the cost of contracts through the roof, and thus endanger marginal teams. Nonsense. That has not happened in baseball. Nor would it be unseemly for football players to earn somewhat more than they are currently making - averaging $230,000 a year, compared with salaries in the $300,000 range for their counterparts in baseball.

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Such high salaries strike many people as unreasonable. And, we have to admit, not without cause. Few Americans command the type of remuneration that professional athletes can muster, editorial writers included, not to mention the schoolteacher who is usually contrasted with a football player. But the dollar figures by themselves are not the only issue. Under the present arrangement, football players are not really allowed to test the market to see what they could get under genuinely open bidding. And the apparently ``enormous'' salaries of football players, whose careers may run 10 to 15 years if they are very good, and often less, are far below the megabucks earnings of some rock stars, film and television personalities, or top corporate executives. The larger point is that in a free society, people should be paid what the market will provide.

A final point: Football owners are now talking about using strikebreaker teams to force their regulars back into the locker rooms. But that step should be ruled a foul play by television viewers, who can always turn their sets to the channel down the video block - or read a good book.

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