By Junius Taville
In 1969, an All-Star outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals names Curt Flood changed the way sports operate. I repeat, HE CHANGED THE WAY SPORTS OPERATE!!! Now, I know some of you have no idea who this man is and why he is, in my opinion, the most influential athlete ever. Michael Jordan is, without a doubt, the most recognizable and market-savvy athlete we have ever known, but, without Curt Flood, Jordan doesn’t become the marketing or pop mogul that he still is today.
For starters, let’s start off with the way sports used to work. The modern-day sports model has free agency, which means when an athlete has fulfilled the terms and duration of his contract, he is free to sign with whatever team in his sport offers a contract. Said athlete is no longer legally bound to his/her former team. Well, that wasn’t always the case. 20th century sports had what was named the “reserve clause.” The “reserve clause” stated that said athlete was bound to the same team that he/she was drafted to for the duration of the athlete’s career. The only way said athlete could leave was to be traded by his/her team and, then, you were now bound to that particular team. Just to make sure I’m not confusing anybody here, Lebron James would have been contractually bound to the Cleveland Cavaliers for his entire career and might not have ever won a championship or even had a chance to play for one. Could you imagine what his legacy would have been? Well, Curt Flood changed all that.
On Christmas Eve of 1969, he wrote a letter to former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn challenging his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood felt that he should have the right to play for whoever he wanted. He believed that owners used players as pawns, or, in his words, “highly paid slaves,” because they could control where players played and for how much. In Flood’s opinion, owners dictating players’ teams was just like plantation owners controlling where their slaves should work and their wages, if any. At the time, Flood had already played 12 seasons for the Cardinals. If he were forced to play for the Phillies, who were struggling and had been a bottom-dweller in the standings for a few seasons, his career would have been a dead-end. Kuhn denied his challenge and Flood sued MLB. His case, Flood vs. Kuhn, went all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost a 5-3 decision there and he retired in 1971. What Flood didn’t know, was that the ruling was actually a landmark decision and, because of it, he actually scored a Pyrrhic victory. In 1973, MLB allowed salary arbitration and, finally, in 1975, the “reserve clause” was thrown out and free agency followed soon afterward.
I know many of you are wondering why Curt Flood isn’t recognized or celebrated for paving the way for athletes to have wonderfully lucrative and successful careers. The truth is he was black-balled from professional baseball because he went against the owners. In other words, he challenged authority and was “put in his place” so to speak. But, because of this tragedy, every major sport has free agency and, in some cases, certain athletes have “no-trade clauses,” which means said athlete has to sign off on the trade before the team has permission to trade him or her. Honestly, Curt Flood lost his chance to continue his love and livelihood so that Jordan, Lebron, and others could experience better lives, personally and professionally. He died in 1997 of throat cancer, which is ironically the year Kevin Garnett, a forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA signed what was then the highest contract in the history of professional sports at 7 years for $126 million. There is no way that happens under what would have been the system that Curt Flood worked under for the first 12 years of his career. As you can see, Flood’s landmark Supreme Court decision reached across all sports and all levels of players. So, as a person who loves sports, with a debt of gratitude for all athletes who make millions, rest in eternity and thank you for everything Curt Flood. Your legacy continues to live.