Free agency was behind one of the more bizarre sports stoppages in history. Football players already had free agency of sorts, in that the “Rozelle rule” (named after former NFL head Pete Rozelle) resulted in the commissioner being able to compensate a player’s original team with draft picks or players from his new team if he signed as a free agent. But however you sliced it, that wasn’t really a satisfying definition of free.
So the players thought they were onto a winning tactic by calling the strike after the second game of the 1987 season. They figured that TV networks would go into such a panic that management would simply accede to their employees’ wishes. Instead, the NFL owners called the players’ bluffs by simply canceling Week 3 and hastily assembling replacement teams. The networks were on board, and so for three weeks, the likes of what would become known as the Los Angeles Shams, Chicago Spare Bears, Seattle Sea Scabs, New Orleans Saint Elsewheres, Miami Dol-Finks and the San Francisco Phoney-Niners took to the field.
The replacements varied from players who had been cut during training camp to those who just happened to look the part (bouncers, construction workers) to — most oddly — future Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who was a backup in two games for L.A. When the strike did end a few weeks later, the replacements still had another Sunday in the spotlight because the real players had missed the weekly eligibility deadline by a day. A crappy Keanu Reeves movie dramatizing the strike, The Replacements, was eventually made.