Call it the Reebok Rule
Today The Curly R begins a three part series looking at the history of financial and professional freedoms of the NFL player. Though much has changed over time the league is still finding ways to restrict players' independence. As ever, money is at the center of it all.
Part One: The Reserve Clause and the Rozelle Rule
Part Two: Mackey v. NFL
Part Three: Tomorrow night
Rarely will readers find Curly R with a sympathetic ear to professional football players, the rookie minimum for whom is 295 thousand dollars*, that is nearly 18 thousand 500 dollars per game for a 16 game season, even making the roster for a game or two is enough to get yourself out of some serious debt, buy a house, kickstart a retirement fund or get seed capital for investing in a business. They put themselves at risk for fleeting glory, for many it is a couple of years and then back to reality, for some a solid career presages a comfortable post football lifestyle and for a select few the sky is the limit, the ones that play long and hard and never have to work a serious day again in their lives.
It was not always this way, with comfort in reach for any player and untold riches available to the best.
Prior to 1960 there was very little player movement in the NFL due to a thing called the Reserve Clause. A vital organ of owner authority in all professional sports at the beginning, the Reserve Clause dictated that at the expiration of a contract a player's rights were still held with the original team. A player could not sign with another team freely without being released from reserve, traded or some other inter team compensation negotiated between owners. If you wanted to play football in the NFL and were at the end of your current contract, in most cases you had no choice but to re sign with your original team, and on the terms dictated by that team. As such there was little player movement between teams, salaries could remain depressed and players had little freedom in their careers, especially if relations between the player and the team soured.
The most famous challenge to the Reserve Clause came in 1946 and was really the start of the organization movement when Detroit Lions All-Pro guard Bill Radovich asked the team to transfer him to a team in Los Angeles so he could be near his ailing father. The Lions refused so Bill, whose contract with the Lions had expired and despite threats from Lions owner Fred Madel that the NFL would blackball him, violated the Reserve Clause and signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the short lived All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Bill was blacklisted by the NFL and after two seasons with the Dons was unable to find a job in football. With the help of a former US Justice Department antitrust litigator (whom it is said Bill met after his playing career while waiting tables in the famed Brown Derby in Los Angeles) Bill sued the NFL for unfair labor practices, with the case going all the way to the Supreme Court.
In 1957, 11 years after the Lions had denied Bill his requested move, the Supreme Court ruled that unlike Major League Baseball, antitrust laws did apply to the NFL, effectively negating the Reserve Clause for professional football. Bill's case was sent back to district court where the NFL settled the case for 42 thousand dollars (in his original suit Bill had only sought 35 thousand dollars in damages).
Three years later in 1960 Pete Rozelle became NFL commissioner, a position that nominally leads the league and in reality exists to serve the franchise owners. Faced with concern from his constituency about the implications of Radovich vs. NFL, Pete took a middle path and instituted what became known as the Rozelle Rule. Under the Rozelle Rule players at the end of their contracts were free to move to other teams, though the new team had to provide quote fair and equitable compensation unquote to the original team. It was the commissioner's office that reviewed every move and assessed what fair compensation might be, in terms of draft picks, players in trade or cash. As a result and ostensibly it was the fear of losing top draft picks or top players that kept teams from engaging in free agent transactions, from 1963 to 1976 only four NFL players changed teams after contract expiration.
In reality the bar was set at an artificial height that effectively discouraged players from moving from team to team, and the owners could continue to maintain players in de facto reserve indefinitely.
Curly R's The New Rozelle Rule continues tomorrow with part two, Mackey v. NFL.
* Other citations of NFL salary minimums, these are all still listed with 2007 numbers though likely will be updated eventually: Wikipedia, Ask the Commish.
Chad Johnson aka Ocho Cinco uncredited image from here.