Leonard Sorta Dipped? Free Agency, Past and Present

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Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry celebrate the Toronto Raptors’ NBA Championship, 13 June 2019. Sportsnet.

Edward Dunsworth

Next Tuesday evening, when the Toronto Raptors host the New Orleans Pelicans to kick off the 2019-20 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA), it will be a night unlike any other. The Raptors, for the first time in their 25-year history, begin the campaign as defending champions.

There will, of course, be a highly conspicuous absence as the championship banner is raised to the rafters and Raptors players receive their commemorative rings. Kawhi Leonard, the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals and arguably the greatest basketball player on the planet, elected this offseason – after weeks of frantic speculation – to leave the Raptors in favour of his hometown Los Angeles Clippers.

After making a bold prediction about Kawhi Leonard re-signing with the Raptors, a graffiti artist in the author’s neighbourhood quickly adapted after things turned out differently. Author’s photos.

Leonard’s move has been widely viewed as the latest in what has been dubbed the “player empowerment era,” referring to trends over the last decade or so in which players have taken increasing control over where and with whom they play, garnering ever-larger contracts in the process.

While NBA fans have greeted this transactional drama with as much (or even more) enthusiasm as they do the actual games, it has sparked anxiety amongst some fans and members of the media, who worry that the individualism of heightened player movement may rip to shreds the collective fabric of team sports.

Fans and experts expressing these anxieties often, with varying degrees of subtlety, harken back to the good old days when players spent their entire careers with one team and teams enjoyed significant continuity for years-long stretches (the 1950s Celtics, 1980s Lakers, or 1990s Bulls for example). They worry that pro sports – and the NBA in particular – is heading towards a situation little different than a Thursday-night pick-up game at the local gym, where teams are assembled and dismantled multiple times per night.

This, of course, is a highly selective (and myopic) understanding of history, one that obscures the fact that the era of player empowerment is the product of years of struggle by athletes to receive their due within the highly popular leagues in which they labour. (And, as many others – including athletes themselves – have pointed out, anxieties about player empowerment and movement in a league that is overwhelmingly Black carry some deeply problematic racial baggage).

The pundits are right about one thing: professional athletes did not used to change teams as frequently as they do now. But rather than springing from some bygone sense of athletic loyalty, this fact can instead be traced to the historic structure of player contracts within North America’s major sports leagues, which placed the balance of power overwhelmingly in the hands of team owners and made switching teams a difficult and highly unattractive undertaking.

Until the 1970s, all four major pro sports leagues in North America (in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey) employed very similar mechanisms for dissuading player movement and precluding their ability to bargain for higher pay.

At the heart of this system was the reserve clause, instituted in baseball’s National League in 1879, which stipulated that teams held the right to keep players for one year beyond the expiry of their contract. Players were barred from pursuing contracts with other teams (under threat of blacklisting), meaning that their choice was limited to either accepting the contract offered by their pre-existing team or holding out, with no freedom to secure competing offers elsewhere.

The details varied and changed over time, but similar “reserve systems” were adopted by the other pro leagues as they came into existence. In basketball and football, players could in theory become free agents, but a player’s new team would be required to pay significant compensation to the former one. In effect, this made changing teams almost unheard of.

A major blow was dealt to the reserve system in professional basketball in the late 1960s when a rival professional league, the American Basketball Association (ABA), burst onto the scene. Eager to make a splash with fans, ABA teams used lavish contract offers to lure many NBA players, including some of the game’s biggest stars, to the new league. (Coaches and even referees were also poached from the NBA.)

A boon for players, who all of a sudden could field competing offers for their services, the ABA was a major problem for the NBA, snatching spectators, driving up wages, and rendering the reserve system impotent, since it could only function if all potential employers played by the same rules.

In order to resolve the situation, the NBA pursued a merger with the upstart league. For many in the ABA, this had been the end-goal all along: build up enough of a competitive threat to secure a profitable buy-out. In 1970, the two leagues had the framework of an agreement in place.

But the players weren’t having it. Finally freed from the shackles of the reserve system and enjoying pay increases as a result, they were not going to permit the return to a monopoly without a fight.

That fight came in the form of a court case, brought by Oscar Robertson, star player and president of the NBA Players’ Association (NBAPA), in 1970. The suit argued that the NBA’s reserve system (and other aspects of its labour practices) violated anti-trust laws by preventing players from freely selling their labour power. It sought an immediate injunction against the NBA-ABA merger on the same basis.

Robertson and the NBAPA were successful in preventing the merger. The rest of the case took years to wend its way through the courts, but eventually, in 1976, with all signs pointing towards victory for the players, the NBA agreed to settle. That settlement led to a new collective bargaining agreement, which began to phase out the reserve system and opened the door to unrestricted free agency. (With this agreement in hand, the NBAPA allowed the ABA-NBA merger to go through, which happened that same year).

In the decades since, players have continued to secure victories at the bargaining table, improving not only their rights to labour mobility, but also increasing their share of the NBA’s ever-growing profits. In the current collective bargaining agreement, players receive approximately half of the league’s revenue – which clocked in at about $8 billion in 2018-19.

To be sure, there remain limits on players’ labour mobility, most notably the fact that rookies must sign with whichever team selects them in the NBA Draft. Still, the situation today represents an astounding turn-around from fifty years ago, when players were essentially bound to one team for life, their lack of bargaining power keeping all but the biggest stars from earning more than modest salaries.

These impressive achievements notwithstanding, we should temper our enthusiasm about the NBA representing some sort of workers’ paradise. While the stars of the league have successfully leveraged their bargaining power and celebrity to claim a large share of the pie, there is of course no shortage of exploited labour in the sports economy: from the cleaners and food service staff in arenas, to the garment workers sewing t-shirts and sneakers in the Global South, to the women staffers for the Dallas Mavericks, subjected to years of sexual harassment and assault.

NBA stars have been vocal in their support of fellow athletes securing better conditions – witness the recent endorsement by LeBron James and Draymond Green of legislation in California and New York that would allow college athletes to be paid – but such solidarity has only rarely extended past the playing field.

Though the “player empowerment era” has not exactly ushered in a “people’s empowerment era,” we can still be happy that NBA players, many from working-class and racialized backgrounds, are exercising their hard-won rights to choose their place of work and be paid handsomely for it.

Many Raptors fans will rightly feel a tinge of sadness on Tuesday night as the team begins its title defense without the most important player from last year’s team. But we can take at least some solace in appreciating the history of struggle behind Leonard’s ability to “dip.”

Edward Dunsworth is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at York University, and a Contributing Editor at Active History. A scholar of migration and labour by day, he is pondering moonlighting as a sports historian. He tweets @ehewey.

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