During the 1987 NFL season, the players went on strike during Weeks 3, 4, 5 and 6. After the league cancelled the Week 3 games, teams were drawn up with players who decided not to strike, ex-players from the NFL and the then-defunct offshot United States Football League, former college standouts, and anyone who had a shred of talent for Week 4 matchups. Ultimately the players backed off and normal operations resumed in Week 7, but not before hundreds of athletes were able to temporarily live out their dreams of playing in the NFL. Year of the Scab is the latest in ESPN’s extraordinary 30 for 30 sports documentary series that examines this tumultuous period in NFL history and looks at the men who became known as “scabs” for taking the field when the actual teams protested outside the stadiums (if this sounds familiar, the 2000 film The Replacements was very loosely based on this story).
Year of the Scab focuses on the so-called “Scabskins”, the team put together by the Washington Redskins featuring no NFL players who crossed the picket line, which went 3-0 in its games and set the actual Redskins up to win the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the season. The Cinderella story for the Scabskins culminated in a Monday Night Football win against the Dallas Cowboys, a team that featured a sizeable number of players who broke the strike. Though the players remember facing threats of violence and widespread derision at first, Redskins fans embraced the temporary team for its success (they even chanted “We Want The Scabs!” during the first post-strike game when the actual Redskins had some initial on-field struggles). Yet the players were soon forgotten by fans and the team itself. Those interviewed for the documentary include replacement team quarterbacks Edward Rubbert and Tony Robinson and then Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.
All of these men have compelling stories and each also has different reactions to their infamous tenures in the NFL ranging from pride to self-doubt to shame. Yet all seem to desire recognition from the team for their contributions. Those that didn’t make the roster for the first post-strike game — which were most of them — are not acknowledged as alumni of the Redskins nor considered part of the Super Bowl-winning season despite the fact that the “Scabskins” are solely responsible for three of the season’s wins. Because of that, they did not receive Super Bowl Champion rings, one of the most prized possessions in sports. While it’s true that most of those players didn’t play in the Super Bowl, it’s traditional that all players on the roster and off-field team personnel receive rings for their contributions to the team’s eventual victory. So why no rings for the “scab” players? It’s a complicated question and the documentary unfortunately doesn’t have any representatives from the Washington Redskins to explain the omission. Viewers might even think that they don’t even deserve recognition for being “scabs,” although the NFL players who crossed the picket line like Joe Motana, Doug Flutie, Randy White and Mark Gastineau didn’t seem to suffer much fallout from their actions besides a few cold shoulders from their teammates.
I’d be interested to find out if director John Dorsey — who previously produced the 30 for 30 documentary Pony Excess about the infamous SMU Death Penalty — attempted to receive a comment from the Redskins about their position on the non-acknowledgement of the replacement players. But then again, this is really a personal story about the players who had the opportunity that many of us can only dream about, so perhaps it isn’t the place for the Redskins to respond (the organization can do that on its own at any time). It would also probably bloat what makes for a quick, compact, and fascinating 77 minute documentary that will be an enjoyable watch for any football fan when it eventually airs on ESPN.