Currently, it is rare for professional athletes to play their entire career for one franchise. But, that wasn’t always the case. Before free agency existed, sports teams held nearly complete control over individual players. Contracts contained reserve clauses, which forced players to stay with one team. Players only changed teams if they were traded, released or chose to retire from the sport.
In 1969, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood became the first professional athlete to fight for free agency rights. Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, alleging it violated antitrust laws and his 13th Amendment rights. After discovering he was being traded from the Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, Flood wrote a letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn protesting the trade, claiming he was entitled to consider contract offers from other teams before making a decision. Commissioner Kuhn denied the outfielder’s petition, so Flood sued Major League Baseball for antitrust violations.
In 1972, Flood v. Kuhn reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled against Flood in a 5-3 decision, stating that baseball was a sport and not a business, and therefore exempt from anti-trust law. The three judges who voted for Flood maintained that the ruling was improper because baseball is a business due to its ability to bring millions of dollars in profits to owners.
Although unsuccessful, Flood’s challenge helped open the door for other players to fight the reserve clause in an attempt to abolish it from sports. In 1974, baseball arbitrator Marvin Miller encouraged pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the year without signing a contract. After the season, the players filed a grievance with MLB, claiming that they should be awarded free agent status. Owners disagreed, arguing that one-year contracts under the reserve clause were perpetually renewed.
On December 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz reversed the Supreme Court’s original verdict and declared that Major League Baseball players had the right to become free agents upon playing one year for their team without a contract. The ruling forever terminated the reserve clause from sports, paving the way toward modern free agency. Major League Baseball also implemented federal arbitration of salary demands, which allowed players to negotiate their salary when their contract expired. The change wrestled further control away from team owners, and gave players freedom to block trades and request higher salaries.
In 1976, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association signed an agreement which allowed players with at least six years of experience to become free agents. The National Football League became the second North American sport to adopt a similar free agency policy in 1992, followed by the National Hockey League in 1995 and the National Basketball League in 1996.
While free agency inevitably helped sports evolve, it has served as a source of frequent discontent between players and team owners. Players have regularly disputed with owners over the right to receive sufficient compensation for the amount of profit they help generate. Conversely, team owners have concerns that free agency leads to higher salaries for star players, which may have a negative impact on the overall competitiveness of the league.