Thursday, April 22, 2010

Conflicts of interest in the NFL players' union

In 1968, the Washington Redskins used their first-round pick (12th overall) on [James] Smith, an All-American defensive back from the University of Oregon. The rookie signed with the team for $50,000, and his unremarkable first season culminated in a career-ending neck injury during Week 14. Smith seemed destined for quick obscurity. Then he sued the NFL.

Two years after his retirement, Smith went before a judge and asserted that the draft constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Had it not been for the draft, he argued, he would have been able to negotiate a more lucrative contract for his one year as a professional. And he demanded that the NFL make up the difference.

The case succeeded at the district court, securing $276,000 in treble damages for Smith, and he won again when the league appealed. In 1977, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the "draft inescapably forces each seller of football services to deal with one, and only one buyer, robbing the seller, as in any monopsonistic market, of any real bargaining power." ...

But league lawyers (including future Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) had already been working on a Plan B. ... [L]eagues could still hold their drafts as long as they could get the unions to agree to them. ...

For the last three decades, the blessing of the players union has ensured the legality of this [draft] arrangement. But that doesn't mean the system is fair or equitable. In fact, the players association doesn't really have an incentive to protect the interests of future professionals.

The union's leadership is determined by seniority, with the upper echelon composed of veterans whose financial stakes conflict with those of the rookies. ... It benefits the veteran players who run the union to keep that pool [of money for rookie salaries] small. ...

In fact, there's buzz that in the next agreement, the union will accept an even tighter wage scale for rookies. ...

[T]those who wish to challenge the NFL draft in the post-Yazoo Smith era should think hard about their target. It's not the league. It's the union.
--Eriq Garner, Slate, on who the NFL draft serves

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