How One of the Biggest Douchebags in Sports Made Basketball a Freer Market

Interesting piece over
at Slate
about the generally unsung role NBA/ABA great Rick
Barry played in creating a freer labor market in professional
basketball and sports more generally. As Dave Hollander points out,
to know Rick Barry was pretty much to hate Rick Barry. He was a
vain, egotistical, offensive jerk who rarely missed an opportunity
to offend, either intentionally or not (he once referred to the
African-American trailblazer Bill Russell as having “a watermelon

Yet Hollander, who has a book out about the 1974-75 Golden State
Warriors, argues persuasively that Rick Barry helped put a
sledgehammer to the “reserve clause” operating in all major sports
leagues. Due to a series of awful court rulings and legislative
decisions made by idiot elected officials, the reserve clause
essentially gave all power to owners and reduced athletes to the
status of chattel (baseball’s great emancipator, Curt Flood,
explicitly likened the reserve clause to slavery).

In the late 1960s, Barry became the first NBA star to decide to
jump to the upstart ABA. In order to do so, Hollander explains, he
had to challenge basketball’s reserve clause, which among other
things forced a player to play for his current team for a year
after his contract expired unless the team let him go. Barry filed
a suit and eventually lost in court and had to sit out a year.

The ABA had its first NBA player and a legitimate jumping off
point to launch a bidding war. That bidding war gave players an
option to choose between leagues. It increased their average
salaries from $18,000 in 1967 to $110,000 in 1975. When the NBA
wanted to stop the spending madness by merging with its rival
league, do you know who blocked it? The NBA players. Why? To keep
the salary war going.

Congress was considering an exemption to antitrust rules that
would allow the rival leagues to merge and the players, led by
Oscar Robertson, wanted to make sure that the new combined league
would not simply be able to revert to old practice. He ended up
appearing before the Senate and had this positively awesome
exchange with Sen. Roman Hruska:

Robertson: I think it is terribly
wrong for anyone to limit anyone’s ability to earn money no matter
where it may be, whether it is in business or sports. I think any
time you limit a person as to where he can go, such as the case was
prior to the two leagues, I think it is terribly wrong.

Hruska: Is it wrong to limit the
amount of money a man can earn?

Robertson: I think in America it

Hruska: Does the draft system do

Robertson: I think if you only had
one league, that is true. As long as you have two leagues, there is
no telling what a person can earn.

Hollander sums up:

Ipso facto the ABA was the death knell for
the NBA reserve clause. Consider this syllogism: No two leagues, no
end of the reserve clause. No ABA, no two leagues. No Rick Barry,
no ABA. Therefore, no Rick Barry, no defeat of the reserve

If you care about sports, capitalism, or comb-overs
(another thing that Rick Barry pioneered),
read the whole thing.

And read Matt
Welch’s 2005 classic, “Locker-Room Liberty,”
which looks at the
various ways that Joe Namath, Dick Allen, and Robertson helped to
create a sports world in which the folks actually putting asses in
the seats got a bigger cut of the amount of money they were
generating (for the time being, let’s not hold them accountable for
all the taxpayer dollars that are now propping up big-league

And watch
the great sportswriter Robert Lipsyste
talk about how sports
reflects society in good, bad, and ugly ways). Specifically, check
out his comments about how tennis legend Billie Jean King was the
single-most important figure in expanding athlete’s paychecks in
post-war America (around 26.30 minutes):


from Hit & Run

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