In 1969, there were a couple of large events that changed the world forever. The most important was the landing of a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth fulfilling President Kennedy’s command of a nearly a decade earlier. I always said the year I turned 38 that it was going to be hard to top Neil Armstrong’s 38th year since he walked on the moon at that age. He was the first, but no man has walked on the moon since 1972 when Astronaut Eugene Cernan climbed up the ladder and back into the lunar module to return to earth. NASA’s next goal is apparently Mars and think about this. Somewhere out there is a little boy or little girl or maybe even one who hasn’t even been born yet who will make history and be the first person to set foot on Mars. That’s why I tell anyone who’ll listen forget about being on television or being a doctor or lawyer, get into math and science and just watch where it can take you.
The other one wasn’t as important, but for those who love sports it changed the world of sports forever and continues to have an impact even today, and it’s impact is not just on professional sports. In 1969, Curt Flood was under contract to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, which by the way in my opinion is the best “baseball city” in the country. In Flood’s contract was something called a “reserve clause” which was in every player’s contract in those days. The reserve clause said that if a player was under contract with a certain team that team retained his rights even after his contract expired. That mean the player couldn’t sign with another team and the team was free to move the player around like pieces on a chess board and could reassign him to the minors, trade him, sell his rights or simply release him and the player had no say at all in the matter. The only way a player could ever sign with another team was an unconditional release and as you might imagine, the best players weren’t getting that. Players were property.
Exercising their rights to their “property” the Cardinals packaged Flood with 3 other players including catcher Tim McCarver whose best known to those of us “not quite so old” as a broadcaster, to the Philadelphia Phillies on October 7, 1969. Flood refused to report to the Phillies citing in part the club’s horrible record, aging Connie Mack Stadium and reportedly a belief that Philadelphia fans were racist. I don’t know about that, but they are nuts. This is after all the City that calls itself the City of Brotherly Love, but whose fans once booed Santa Claus at an Eagles game.
On December 24, 1969, Flood wrote to then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn asking to be declared a free agent and telling Kuhn that he did not believe himself to be a piece of property to be bought and sold “irrespective of my wishes.” Kuhn denied that request. Flood then retained players union head Marvin Miller to file a lawsuit against Major League Baseball claiming violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Now, I’m not a specialist in anti-trust law, but as a generally rule the Act requires that there be fair competition amongst industries and any attempt to squelch competition is a violation of the Act. You’ve probably heard the term illegal monopoly. The Government is inherently suspicious of mergers that take away competition. That’s why they wouldn’t let AT&T merge with T-Mobile and while the merging of Sirius Satellite Radio with its Rival XM was such a challenge to have approved.
Major League Baseball had a Anti-Trust exemption as they were the only game in town. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The justices of the Supreme Court are supposed to be the best and brightest of all legal scholars, but in Flood’s case they did the ultimate punting on first down by ruling against him claiming that a decision the Court made in 1922 in an anti-trust case involving baseball prohibited them from ruling in Flood’s favor. In other words, the Supreme Court said “we ain’t touching this one and that earlier case says we don’t have to.” So baseball won and Flood was basically blackballed from baseball although he did eventually continue his career with then Washington Senators. However, he and Miller effected positive change and in 1975 the reserve clause was abolished in baseball and free agency began.
Free agency has taken hold in other pro sports although the NFL was slow to recognize it. NFL teams also had a reserve clause and they could exercise it since the Supreme Court refused to do anything in Flood’s case. The NFL had something of a free agency scheme in place, but it was very restricted under what become known as the “Rozelle Rule” named after former commissioner Pete Rozelle. Under that scheme a player could sign with another team, but Rozelle had the discretion to award the team losing the player with draft picks or monetary compensation. After a challenge in 1976, the Rozelle Rule was struck down and in 1989, the NFL instituted “Plan B” free agency. Under Plan B, each team could protect 37 of its players under a right of first refusal. Well, the best players were the ones protected and the others could come and go as they wished because no one wanted them anyway. Unrestricted Free Agency didn’t come into effect until 1992 and one of the first to take advantage was Philadelphia’s dominating defensive end Reggie White who signed with Green Bay. Just 5 years later, “Title Town” had its third Super Bowl title.
These days in the NFL, it’s basically a free for all and the free agency season keeps the league in the forefront without games (which is exactly what the league wants), keeps NFL Insider’s employed and makes the draft the single most important event for teams each year. Teams can be improved through free agency, but are largely built through the draft. Despite unrestricted free agency in the NFL, there are some limitations. Teams are able to exercise the “Franchise Tag” on one of their best players keeping him from signing with another team. The Franchise Tag means that particular player will make 120% of his previous year’s salary. There are also non-exclusive free agents who can accept offers from other teams and the original team has the right to match the offer. Free Agency fits into the NFL’s model. They want all of the teams to be about the same and make the game competitive. On this year’s first day of Free Agency the Super Bowl Champion Broncos went from having two quarterbacks to having none. Peyton Manning retired and his heir apparent in Denver signed with Houston. The Broncos signed Jets and Eagles cast off Mark Sanchez as a free agent, but his career isn’t exactly on an upward trajectory and that means they are going to play a lot like last year and rely on defense and their running game.
Against, all that background is the point. Free agency has taken hold in college sports and frankly even in high school sports. Last year approximately 700 college basketball players transferred from their school to a new school. This year the transfer list currently sits at approximately 400 and it’s not over yet. Some of the transfers are “true transfers” and must sit out a year under the NCAA’s rules. Some however take advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule. Under that rule, a player who has received his bachelor’s degree can transfer and be immediately eligible to play for his new team. The only requirement is that the school he or she transfers to must offer a graduate program not offered at the old school. It’s in effect a “rent a player” because my instinct is that the transferring player isn’t concentrating on his graduate work. He’s there for a PhD in basketball and to help his new school win. It happens in football as well, but not on as large a scale as basketball. The days of a player signing with one school and staying for four years are over for a variety of reasons. Some go to the NBA after one year in residence. Some are maybe not playing because this isn’t high school basketball anymore or maybe the coach was a great guy when he was recruiting him and is now just an asshole or maybe (and most likely) momma and daddy are telling him he can do better someplace else and that coach whose trying to make you better and toughen you up for a bigger battle called “life” just doesn’t appreciate you and your skills.
It happens in high school sports also. Certain schools have been “recruiting” for years. If your home is in one county, your dad can rent an apartment in another county and you are good to go with the new school. Why do that? Well, your county high school kind of sucks and the other school goes to the state playoffs each year. Winning gets you noticed and noticed gets you a chance to play at the next level.
You can’t really argue with the concept of free agency in college sports. The coaches – who are presumably under contract – come and go as they please. It happens in all industries. We all look for the next best thing. But, until Curt Flood stood up and claimed he was a person and not property, sports was different. Now it’s just like anything else and the “Flood-gates” are open.