Free agency has created a controversial revolution in professional athletics since the 1980s. Free agency is the ability of professional team athletes to change teams when their contracts expire. Players can entertain offers from the teams interested in signing them and choose from the available choices. In theory, players use the principles of a free-market economy to receive salaries commensurate with their abilities. Some pundits believe that free agency has been extremely beneficial to professional sports, allowing the best players to be paid what they are worth. Others argue that the dramatic increases in salaries and the tendency of players to change teams every few years has been detrimental.
For most of the history of professional athletics, players were forced to stay with the team that drafted them through a "reserve clause" in their contracts. The only way an athlete could change teams was to be traded by the team's management. Athletes' salaries were completely at the discretion of the owners. Professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players found themselves completely at the mercy of the team owners and managers. Stories abound of players who were named the Most Valuable Player or won a league scoring title only to find their salaries stagnate or even decrease. The athletes found themselves bound to their teams regardless of their wishes, and they could be traded to other teams without being consulted.
Anger over the reserve system grew in professional sports. In 1969, Curt Flood, a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, one of the worst teams in the league. Flood had played for the Cardinals for twelve years, earning a reputation as an outstanding center fielder (226 consecutive games without an error) and an excellent hitter (lifetime average of.293). In addition, Flood was deeply involved in the community and well-liked by the people of St. Louis. Flood asked the commissioner of baseball to declare him a free agent so that he could decide for himself where he would end his career. The commissioner refused, and Flood took major league baseball to court. The case eventually wound up in front of the Supreme Court. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled by a five to three margin against Flood, but the door had been opened. Although Flood would never return to the sport he loved, he had paved the way for the current system of free agency.
In 1976, pitcher Bill Campbell successfully negotiated a free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox. By the start of the 1980s, free agency was a fact of life in baseball. Players' salaries began to increase rapidly, with Nolan Ryan becoming the first player in history to sign a contract worth $1 million per year. The concept of free agency spread to other team sports throughout the decade. By the early 1990s, all professional team sports had some form of free agency, although some were more restrictive than others.
As more players began changing teams and increasing their salaries, team owners began to argue against the free agent system. They argued that teams based in smaller cities, such as St. Louis or Portland, could not offer comparable salaries to teams based in New York and Los Angeles. This growing gap between small-market and large-market teams was addressed in most sports (with the exception of baseball) through revenue sharing and the implementation of a salary cap on the total amount a team could spend on its players.
Free agency has been a boon to professional athletes, but it also has many detractors. Traditionalists argue that fan support has faded as players move from team to team for financial gain. Many critics believe that the constantly changing rosters alienate fans who can no longer find players to support. To counter that argument, supporters of free agency point out that attendance at sporting events has increased dramatically in the past twenty years. If fans were truly feeling alienated by the roster changes, then attendance should be decreasing.
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Weiss, A. Money Games: The Business of Sports. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.