THE FREE-AGENCY FANDANGO
Last week, as NFL players walked the picket line in the cause of unencumbered free agency, their NBA counterparts went to court for the same purpose. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) filed suit in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., charging the league and its owners with violating antitrust law. The suit calls for the abolition of the NBA's college draft, salary cap and right-of-first-refusal provision, all of which restrict player movement. "It comes down to free agency," says Gerald Krovatin, a lawyer for the union. "Players want the right to decide who they want to play for...without artificial restraints."
But do the NBA players really want unrestricted freedom? Possibly not. In fact, their lawsuit, like the NFL strike, is a bargaining gambit calculated to win concessions in negotiations that may or may not include major breakthroughs in free agency.
The NBPA met with management nine times during the moratorium, and whatever the disposition of the suit, there will be more meetings. This litigate-and-negotiate dance is not new in sport. In 1976, after pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally brought an end to baseball's era of indentured servitude with their successful challenge of the sport's reserve clause, a provision that bound a player to his original team in perpetuity, union chief Marvin Miller proceeded to the bargaining table and settled for a free-agency system more restrictive than the freedom of movement granted by the arbitrator. Similarly, when Baltimore Colt tight end John Mackey won an antitrust suit against the NFL in 1976, the decision sounded the death knell for the Rozelle Rule. Under the rule a team signing a free agent was penalized by a requirement that it pay compensation to the player's former team. But the freedom won by football players proved fleeting. The NFL Players Association promptly bargained away free agency in return for better pensions and medical insurance.
NBA players also have pulled back when free agency was in their grasp. Court decisions in the Oscar Robertson antitrust case, which, among other things, blocked the NBA's proposed merger with the ABA, were going the players' way when they agreed to settle in 1976. As a result the merger went through, and the players gained a far more favorable contract but not free agency. In 1982 another players' lawsuit prevented the league from establishing a salary cap. In subsequent negotiations the union accepted a cap, but it was a much higher cap than management had originally offered. "Every union has ultimately agreed to some restrictions on player mobility," says Duke law professor John Weistart, coauthor of The Law of Sports. "Players tend to talk about free movement, but they understand it would not be in their long-term interest to observe pure free-market rules. Sport is in a unique situation as an industry. With unlimited bidding, someone can buy up all the talent, competition suffers, and the industry itself is threatened because fans lose interest."
Weistart may be exaggerating. The era of increased free agency in baseball (a golden age temporarily ended by the owners' brazenly collusive practices of the past two years) was one of greater parity among teams and soaring attendance. But what's significant is that many pro athletes agree with Weistart that they must compromise on free agency to promote stability. For example, NBA players accepted the salary cap in 1982 because owners opened their books, showing considerable red ink.
The NBPA insists that conditions have changed. "Now the league is healthy, and the salary cap is not necessary any longer," says Charles Grantham, the union's executive vice-president.
Don't be surprised if some version of the salary cap, and the draft and the right of first refusal, is retained in negotiations with the NBA owners. "That's the key thing, that bargaining continue," says Weistart. "That will come in collective bargaining. You're looking for a solution that respects the individual dignity and rights of the player but also restrains unlimited bidding by the owner. That's hard to resolve. We can expect that free agency and player mobility will continue to be the issue in sports for years to come."
Jerry Pritikin, the Bleacher Preacher of Wrigley Field, feels as though he has been excommunicated. A Cubs fan for 42 years and a fixture in the bleachers for the past three, Pritikin wears, or used to wear, a T-shirt that reads JERRY PRITIKIN, BLEACHER PREACHER, THE GOSPEL OF THE CUBS. He claims to have converted 1,500 nonbelievers into Cubs fans, baptizing them with an oath that invokes the names of Bill Veeck Sr., Bill Veeck Jr. and Charlie Grimm, the last man to manage a Cub team in the World Series (42 years ago).