In 1987, two weeks into the season, the National Football League Player’s Association went on strike. In the past, player strikes had led to cancelled games and shortened seasons. But in 1987, the owners fought back. Instead of cancelling games, they brought in replacements. Some of the replacements were former college players. Some were players that were recruited from the Canadian leagues or the recently folded USFL. Some of them were just locals who could throw a ball or kick a field goal. They were called scabs and, at first, they were hated by the fans. But for three weeks, they were the NFL.
Year of the Scab, the latest entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, is about the players who (briefly) played for the 1987 Washington Redskins, the only team to be 100% made up of replacements. To the shock of everyone, while the team’s stars were walking the picket line, the replacement players won all three of their games, including one against the Dallas Cowboys. For three weeks, the scabs were stars but, when the strike ended, the replacements were cut and ultimately forgotten. When the Redskins won the super bowl, the replacements got to join the team at the White House but they did not receive rings. As one of the replacement players puts it, “Even the girl who answered the telephones in the front office got a ring.”
The most interesting part about Year of the Scab are the interviews with the former replacements today. Some are still involved in football, coaching high school teams. One works in a warehouse. Tony Robinson was paroled from prison so that he could play for the Redskins and then returned to prison as soon as the season was over. All of them are still emotional about their time in the NFL and, to varying degrees, all of them are aware that, because of their status as scabs, they will never receive the recognition that their gameplay deserved. Some of them still struggle with their decision to cross the picket line while others just wish they had gotten a ring. (One player even had a duplicate super bowl ring made but he laments that it’s still not the same as having the real thing.) Year of the Scab is an interesting and thought-provoking documentary about opportunities received and lost.