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Today's Tidbit... NFL Training Camps as Unpaid Internships
In 1956, NFL teams played six exhibition games and twelve league games, plus the two divisional winners played in a championship game. It seems crazy now for training camp to last half as long as the season itself, but that's what they did.
Teams did not scout and evaluate college talent anywhere near today's level, so the draft had thirty rounds, and teams often learned what they had only after getting the players in camp. In addition, the College All-Star game kept the best players from their team camps for the first several weeks while other players were drafted into or mustered out of the services during the middle of camp. Finally, teams lacked television contracts for exhibition games, which were often played in non-NFL cities hoping to attract crowds. Teams often claimed they lost money during training camp.
Despite training camps lasting about eight weeks, rookies and veterans on most teams did not get paid for participating in camp or the exhibition games. The Detroit Lions paid their camp players $25 per week or the equivalent of $250 in 2023 dollars. The New York Giants paid $10 per week, and the Chicago Cardinals gave players $2 per day in walking around money. The Packers paid a minor amount and reduced the season salary by the same amount for those making the team.
However, during the 1956 preseason, the Los Angeles Rams players, whose franchise had never paid a nickel during training camp, threatened to boycott camp unless they received $75 per week for veterans and $50 per week for rookies. With the Rams in the midst of an ownership dispute, Commissioner Burt Bell and Rams GM Tex Schramm agreed to arbitrate the issue after the season, so the players stayed in camp.
Of course, things have changed since then. The formation of the NFL Players Association came in 1956, with one of their initial demands being training camp compensation. After the players threatened to strike in 1966, the NFL owners finally recognized the NFLPA, and issues such as training camp compensation have been negotiated through them ever since. Today, rookies earn $850 per week during camp, while veterans receive $1,600.
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