Holding out just paid off in a big way for Ezekiel Elliott. The 24 year old Dallas star just inked a six year, $90 million contract extension that makes him the highest paid running back in the NFL.
That’s a solid chunk of change even by big league standards, but it wasn’t long ago that professional athletes in the United States couldn’t negotiate a salary worth even a small fraction of that. For years, players in pro sports leagues found themselves trapped in contracts that could be bought and sold with little recourse if they found themselves in an unfair situation.
The labor movement in pro sports has evolved in huge measures since the mid-20th century, and, fittingly enough, America’s pastime paved much of the way.
Buckle up, kids, and let’s talk about how major league baseball opened the doors to free agency, changed the landscape of North American professional sports, and gave players the ability to negotiate fair contracts.
Marvin Miller and the MLBPA
The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) represents the interests of players, coaching staff, and team trainers. This group wasn’t the first attempt to unionize in the MLB, but it’s the one that’s lasted throughout decades of lockouts, strikes, and legal fights.
The first president of the MLBPA was Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, elected in 1956 after the latter years of his career featured some discord about labor-related issues. In 1966, the MLBPA cemented their standing by hiring United Steelworkers top adviser Marvin Miller to head the organization.
In February of 1968, Miller successfully negotiated the league’s first collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which, among other benefits, provided players with a higher minimum salary of $10,000 and a formal procedure to address grievances within the league. The NFL followed suit just months later, establishing a CBA of their own and avoiding a lengthy lockout.
Miller was instrumental in abolishing baseball’s reserve clause, which was a standard inclusion in MLB contracts stating that the player would remain beholden to their current team even after the contract expired. The reserve clause essentially objectified players; their contracts could be bought and sold without their input until they were eventually released and free to sign elsewhere in the league. This practice came to a head in 1969, when Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood was informed of a trade to Philadelphia (a city that was at the time notoriously hostile to black players). Miller counseled him in the decision to challenge the clause in court, telling Flood that he had very little chance of victory but would almost certainly have a positive impact for future players in years to come.
Miller was right—the court ruled against Flood in his initial lawsuit and all of his subsequent appeals, the last of which was struck down by the Supreme Court. The choice cost Flood his professional career, but paved the way for modern free agency in baseball by demonstrating to players that they couldn’t depend on the court system to dismantle the oppressive reserve clause.
In 1975, the reserve clause was finally overturned when arbitrator Eric Seitz ruled that pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were not bound to their former teams after they each played an entire season with no contract in place. This was a major victory for labor rights in professional sports, and the impact rippled throughout other sports leagues in North America.
Miller’s shrewd negotiating skills led to the creation of the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports, and Flood’s sacrifice helped to hold owners accountable for unfair contracts. The impact of the labor movement on modern sports can’t be overstated; without the efforts of those that came before him, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Zeke Elliott’s holdout results in anything but missed pay and a lawsuit.
Media sources: Society for American Baseball Research, New York Times, USA Today