The Miami Heat’s title run began in earnest when LeBron James signed as a free agent in 2010. But the seeds were planted over 40 years ago, when MLB star Curt Flood and NBA Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson challenged the “reserve clause,” a one-sided rule that bound a player to his team for his entire career.
Think about your life and the decisions you are allowed to make living in a democratic country: You can live and work in any city you desire. And, given your chosen profession, you can work for whatever company that makes the best offer. In other words, you are a free agent the moment you enter the workforce. What if you are a professional athlete: employers choose you and then offer a contract, which you can either accept or reject. In the NBA and NFL, the salary and length of years is pre-negotiated. If you do not like the offer, you are “free” to not sign the deal. You just can’t play professional sports in the United States. It is not a bad system, per se. The draft system downside is more than offset by the paycheck upside.
Players have the ability to earn their free agency through years of service. In the NBA, after four seasons, a former first-round pick typically is free to sign with any team. It has not always been that way. From the beginning of professional sports in the late 1800s until 1975, players were the property of teams in perpetuity or until that player became expendable.
Then, in the early 1970s, Flood and Robertson challenged the legal basis for the reserve clause. The clause made it impossible for a player to establish his value in a free market.
Flood played 15 years for the St. Louis Cardinals, but was traded after the 1969 season to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood refused to go because he did not want to live in Philadelphia and sat out the entire 1970 season, forfeiting his $90,000 salary.
Flood challenged the reserve clause by suing Major League Baseball. While Curt Flood lost his legal battle at the Supreme Court, he helped pave the way for free agency.
Oscar Robertson, one the greatest NBA players of all time, sued to stop the proposed merger between the NBA and the ABA (the American Basketball Association) claiming rival leagues are good for players since the ABA offered higher salaries to sign players. With no competition from a rival league and no free agency, NBA owners had little incentive to negotiate in good faith and pay players what they were worth.
In 1975, thanks to an abitrator’s ruling, MLB granted free agency to players with six years of experience. In 1976, the NBA settled the Robertson lawsuit and agreed to grant players free agency, but gave teams the right of first refusal.
Many owners (and, unfortunately, even a few players) claimed that free agency would destroy professional sports as rich, big-market teams hoarded talent. In reality, it has turned out to be the exact opposite: Players became more vested in the financial success of professional sports, which has brought about significant growth in revenues, salaries and franchise values.
Every professional athlete since 1975 is the direct beneficiary of these legal battles. Primarily because the ABA was bidding on players, the average NBA salary jumped from $35,000 in 1970 to $200,000 in 1976. The average NBA salary today? $5.15 million.
Today, we grapple with $200-million contracts, not $90,000 salaries. And franchises are worth billions. Few pro-athletes appreciate Curt Flood and Oscar Robertson’s profound contributions to their bank accounts and working conditions. Charles Barkley wonders: “How can anybody drawing a paycheck in sports today not know about Curt Flood? How did his contributions get so overlooked? Athletes had no say in where they played until Curt Flood stood up and refused to be traded.”
Which brings me to LeBron James and The Decision.
LeBron’s decision to jump teams in 2010 was a polarizing moment in the NBA, even if it was largely overblown. Many would have preferred LeBron to play his entire career in Cleveland, his hometown team, but after seven seasons, he was an unrestricted free agent. LeBron earned the right to decide what team he wanted to play for.
Now that LeBron is an NBA champion, public sentiment might shift. Ever since The Decision, which he admitted was in poor taste, he has conducted himself with great class. Said James at his first press conference as an NBA champion, “Last year, I let a lot of things get to me. I felt I had to prove everyone wrong. I was humbled in the 2011 NBA Finals. This year, I got back to the basics.”
LeBron has been a model citizen, handling his affairs, both on and off the court, with class and dignity. And this despite the odds being against someone from a single-parent household and not going to college. LeBron did not just beat the odds; he obliterated them. But he will never satisfy his critics, many of whom yearn for the good ’ole days when players were “loyal” to their teams. But it was never loyalty. It was the just the reserve clause.
Fans prefer when teams develop talent through the draft system. They don’t appreciate when three NBA players conspire to win titles through free agency. Unlike the Oklahoma Thunder, which drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Of course, the Thunder once played in Seattle before deciding to take its entire team to Oklahoma City.
About Marc Isenberg
Marc Isenberg is a nationally-recognized athlete advocate for high school, college and pro athletes. A national columnist for Basketball Times, Marc is a frequent speaker at elite basketball camps and athletic programs and teams, including UCLA, RbkU and the Orlando Magic. In 2012, Marc, with Nolan Smith of the Portland Trail Blazers, founded Hoops Family , an organization devoted to educating and mentoring basketball players—and advocating on their behalf.
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