AS THE HISTORY of the world is divided into B.C. and A.D., so should the development of sports be split into two not necessarily equal parts of B.F.A. (Before Free Agency) and A.F.A. (After Free Agency).
You remember the former. Players were the sporting equivalent of serfs, bound to their owner for life or the duration of their reserve clause, whichever was longer.
When someone working in Oakland and wishing to transfer to Washington could fulfill his desire only through a trade or burial. Either way a player had no input. "Take it or leave it" was a command, not a choice. A player's closest companion was his overnight bag.
It seems centuries ago. It isn't. It merely vanished in one-tenth the time it took to construct. Remnants linger here and there, but the era is essentially history. The Huns and Visigoths should have been so efficient. But then they didn't have to cope with compensation.
A.F.A. is the time that tries owners' souls less than their pocketbooks. Players have risen from serfs to employees, using courts rather than clubs to redress their grievances. They have a voice in where they live and work, although not as much as most members of the labor force. And if they don't enjoy what they're getting for what they're doing where they're doing it, they can usually leave.
But not always. If this is Tuesday, it isn't necessarily Dallas no matter how much one might want it to be. And when they go, it's not for nothing.
Sometimes it's another player, whether he wants it to be or not. Sometimes it's a draft choice who might really rather be in Philadelphia. Sometimes it's money -- cash, no plastic please. And sometimes it's all three.
The price you pay depends upon the place you work and how competent your negotiators are. Most pro sports have collective bargaining agreements between management and labor. The better your negotiator, the better your bargain.
It also varies among all four major professional sports. Baseball
"We have the riskiest, least rewarding compensation in pro sports," insists Ray Grebey, director of the major league baseball owners' Player Relations Committee.
No way, Ray, counters Marvin Miller, his counterpart at the Major League Baseball Players Association. This slight difference of opinion is rather relevant in the current dispute between the two sides.
So far the ramifications have been three months without a new agreement to replace the one which expired Dec. 31; a player's strike of the last week of the exhibition season and a promise of another on May 22 if a new agreement has not been reached, and numerous meetings between the two factions usually described, for lack of anything more appropriate, as "cordial."
"I think the agreement has worked out fairly well for everybody," Miller says. "In other sports you have to worry about draft choices or the decision of a third party as to what the compensation for signing a player is going to be. That uncertainty has to have a chilling effect on team's willingness to sign players.
"In our system there's no uncertainty. If a player has the required six year's service and his contract has expired, making him a free agent if he so wishes, a club signing him knows in advance what it will have to give up."
According to Article XVII of the basic agreement, it's a first or second-round choice in the following June's amateur draft. A club loses as many choices as it signs players. The number each may sign depends upon how many names are on the eligible free agents list. A team usually can sign no more than three, but is eligible to sign as many as it loses. Some teams, such as the Yankees, live for the next eligible list. Some, such as the Orioles wouldn't pay a dollar for it.
That's much more than Grebey and his employers believe a draft choice is worth. "The compensation demands that the club which signs a player lose less than it what it got," he says. "In hockey, if a team loses a front-line player, it gets one and sometimes two in return. It's the same thing in basketball. And football has the most sophisticated system of developing athletes in America. When you get a first-round draft choice as compensation, you've got the franchise.
"When you get an amateur choice in baseball, you've got zilch."
Grebey's figures indicate a player getting to the minor leagues has a 1 in 10 chance of making the majors in the 4.6 years it takes the average player. If a prospect advances to AAA level, his chances still are only 50-50. Of the top 48 picks in 1977-78, the first two years of free agency, none have made it to the majors.
Not even the rejects come cheap. Teams spend an average of $2-$3 million per year on their minor league clubs and well in excess of $500,000 for each player who reaches the majors.
"That's a hell of a lot more than picking a guy off the UCLA campus and saying come bounce my ball for me," Grebey said. "An amateur choice is a virtual unknown. It doesn't give the losing club anything. We think it ought to get something."
Something along the lines of another major leaguer from the signing team who could play for the losing team immediately, if not sooner. His ability would be contingent on how popular the departed free agents had been. A player chosen by four clubs would require no compensation. Nor would players Grebey describes as "middle range." But he wants more than "a body from the plains" for a star.
The players' association wouldn't trade a body from the grave. With average salaries having risen from $51,000 in 1976 $135,000 this season, the system is their solution. Few want to tamper with it, and they've made it clear they'll strike before they allow the owners to.
"All their talk about competitive balance being destroyed and there being a loss of interest in the game had turned out to be bull," Miller says. "The only element of surprise is how much salaries have gone up. But if they sat down and really concentrated, what else could have been expected when a system that had prevented any kind of competition for 90 days is suddenly opened up?
"All of them are screaming about how they have to stop this free agent salary spiral, then you see a three-page release from the commissioner's office about how the game has set attendance records three straight years. I don't think this is a coincidence. I do not think the better competitive balance and tighter races that you see are an accident, either. I think that, too, is a byproduct of what has been done. And it's the exact opposite of what the owners predicted."
"It's worked out very well for the players, and it's probably helped create more fan interest," Grebey counters. "Factually, it's too early to tell if it's paid off for the owners. It's only been around four years. Speculatively, it's created the kind of structure which will drive four clubs out of business."
If so, Miller believes they'll have built the vehicles.
"No one's picketing or holding a gun to the owner's heads. These are wealthy, experienced businessmen, and I have to assume they know what they're doing. An owner must feel that he will get the player's salary and more back in revenue if he signs him." Football
"On paper the other sports have less free agency then we do," says Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "Ours should be working better than all three of them. Instead, the only one where it's working is baseball."
The paper is Article XV, "Right of First Refusal/Compensation," of the NFLPA-NFL collective bargaining agreement, a five-year pact signed in 1977. Under it, a free agent receiving an offer to sign with another team must give his old club an offer sheet containing the terms of his new team's offer. If the old club sends the player a first refusal exercise notice within seven days, it keeps the player. If it doesn't, the player and the new club have a contract.
But in order for the old club to maintain its right of first refusal, the player must have been given a "qualifying offer" by the old club before Feb. 1 or the new club before April 15, with the minimum amount dependent upon the player's length of service in the league.
For the old club to be entitled to a right of compensation, the player must have been given a qualifying offer by the new club before April 15, with minimum amounts also determined by length of service.
If within seven days from the date it received the offer sheet the old club chooses not to exercise its right of first refusal, the player and the new club have a binding contract, and the former club is entitled to compensation ranging from a third-round draft choice if the player's offer was between $55,000-$70,000 to two first-round draft choices if the offer was more than $200,000. Finally, if the free agent receives no offers and the old club advises him by June 1 that it wants to sign him, the player may sign at 110 percent of last year's salary or the last best written offer given by Feb. 1.
"It clearly hasn't worked," Garvey argues. "Norm Thompson is the only guy who changed teams (from St. Louis to Baltimore) under the compensation rule. About 20 have worked out trades and about 45 signed with new teams without compensation, so it's worked for them. But for the average player it hasn't.
"It's the attitude of management. There's no economic incentive for them to sign players from other teams. They share all the revenue equally, make $5.5 million from television capacity. We worked really hard to eliminate the uncertainty and take the commissioner out of the process, and once we did that we thought we would achieve what we wanted."
Since the contact took effect in 1977, average player salaries have risen from $50,000 to $69,000 and the median has risen from $43,000 to $57,000.
"That's not bad, but considering double-digit inflation and the television revenue it's not good," Garvey says. "We went ahead in good faith, and now they're using the worst kind of bad faith.
"It's as they've agreed to continually sign guys at 110 percent after each year. They've agreed among themselves that they're not going to bid for players. How do you deal with this kind of monster?"
By going to the arbitrator, as provided in the agreement, and trying to convince him of the error of the owners' ways. Briefs were filed two weeks ago before Bert Luskin, a Chicago arbitrator, who will soon determine if the union's charges are true.
"To say the owners have conspired not to bid is a strong accusation," says Rusty Martin, associate director of the NFL Management Council, which does the owners' work at the bargaining table. "I don't think it's provable and I certainly don't think it's happening."
Martin does believe the agreement is happening. According to his figure, 50 of the 310 free agents have moved in the last three years. Some have worked trades, others have not received a qualifying offer and signed elsewhere, some have not had their option picked up. For he and his employers, the movement is very much alive.
"I think the owners are relatively pleased with the agreement," he says. "The free agents have clearly benefitted. Their salaries are up an average of 34.2 percent compared to 12 for the rest of the players. And we think that generally the players are moving.
"But wholesale movement would detract from fan identification and the team concept. There aren't very many big names who become free agents because if someone's a good player, a club will make every effort to keep him. That helps promote the team concept. The owners feel very strongly about having that option to keep a player so they can maintain team identity. The NFL also prides itself on competitive balance. The team draws people, not the players.
"If we have a problem, it's that the salaries have escalated too quickly and the compensation is too steep. It's out-stripped the salary scale. Now you'll have to give up a third-round choice for a less than average player, and that's a deterrent."
"The problem," Garvey says, "is that we made a mistake in assuming there would always be a George Allen. I don't think it's a coincidence that they got rid of George as soon as the agreement became effective." Basketball
In the National Basketball Association, draft choices still receive as little respect as George Allen once afforded them. They are bandied about like commodity futures, with the highest bidder not necessarily being successful.
Success or failure often depends upon the whim of Commissioner Larry O'Brien, who, pursuant to Article XVI of the bargaining agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association, "is authorized, but not required, to make an award of compensation to the prior team (which lost a player and was unable to agree with the new team on compensation).
"Although the decision of whether to award compensation, and, if so, what form of compensation is fair and equitable, lies in the sole discretion of the commissioner, the purpose of the compensation rule is not to serve as a penalty, but is to ensure that the team which loses such a (free agent) player is, to nearest extent possible, made whole for the loss of such player."
The resurrection and the life of the Rozelle Rule? In theory, yes. In reality, no, because when one party believes that the other has the advantage, there is recourse.
By virtue of the 1976 settlement in Robertson v. NBA, an antitrust suit filed on behalf of the players in which the presiding judge strongly hinted that the league's draft and player bidding procedures were illegal restraints of trade, either party can appeal O'Brien's decision to Telford Taylor, the Special Master and formerly the chief judge at the Nuremberg trials. Thus, when the association decided that Lonnie Shelton, a first-round draft choice and $450,000 were worth more to Seattle than Marvin Webster to New York, it appealed that decision to Taylor.
He ruled that the reward was excessive, and therefore a penalty, but that because O'Brien did not have the intent to punish the Knicks, he did not abuse his discretion, as the agreement required, and he could not overturn the award.
U.S. District Judge Robert Carter disagreed and overruled Taylor, holding that O'Brien had abused his discretion. The NBA appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to decide the issue shortly.
No matter what the court rules, Webster will stay in New York and Shelton in Seattle. No players will change teams, only draft choices or money. And the standard the court sets may be obsolete after next season, when the agreement calls for the use of a first refusal system to replace the current one.
"I think free agency has helped every sport, and it's certainly worked for our players," says Larry Fleisher, counsel to the NBPA.
Like a charm. Players' average salaaries have risen from $107,000 to $185,000, by far the highest in sports, in the three years the agreement has been in effect. With first refusal in effect, they should go up, up and away. b
"That's the basis of the right of refusal," Fleisher explains. "I think we're going to see a substantial increase, but probably less movement among players. We'll be giving up some freedom, but there should be a dramatic rise in salaries, and the guy who's unhappy still can work out a trade. We made that choice when we signed the agreement.
Under the right of first refusal system as described in Article XVI, from the end of the 1980-81 season to the end of the 1986-87 season, "a veteran free agent may negotiate and sign a contract with any team and any team may negotiate and sign a player contract with any veteran free agent without penalty and restriction, subject only to the prior team's right of first refusal."
The system is similar to football's. The player must show his old team an offer sheet containing the principal terms of the offer from his new team. The prior team can then exercise its first refusal rights at any time during the ensuing 15 days. If it does, it keeps the player. If it doesn't, he's history, and there's no one to replace him. With rookies able to become free agents after their first year, owner's pocketbooks may become lighter than ever.
They may decide to temporarily increase their savings account this summer, however, reasoning that there's no point in paying compensation now when they won't have to a year later. That could be bad economics for Wes Unseld, Rick Barry, Earl Monroe, Paul Silas and Pete Maravich, all of whom will no longer be bound to their current team.
"I don't know what's going to happen in terms of player movement," NBA General Counsel David Stern says. "There's a possibility that salaries could be higher with less movement, but we'll have to let events take their course. We haven't had any experience with this system, so we'll have to wait and see.
"The current system has been working for both sides, I think. We've been up to our armpits in compensation, although we have nothing pending. Of the 45 free agents that have signed during the last three years, 13 or 14 have had to be decided by the commissioner. The teams have worked out the other ones. Our current dissatisfaction is that the agreement has been interpreted as submitting the issue of compensation to a federal judge rather than to the commissioner. I imagine he'll have less to do once first refusal starts."
Unlike the owners, according to Fleisher.
"There's going to be pressure on them to run their business better. Now that they have a method of keeping their players, there won't be an excuse for having a bad team. It takes away the argument that they don't know where they'll get players. All they have to do is match dollars." Hockey
Not long ago the World Hockey Association (R.I.P.) and the National Hockey League were having a war in which the players won every battle. It worked fabulously for the employees, until their dollar demand began to exceed the bosses' supply.
Then the NHL owners, purportedly in the interest of peace, convinced the players to accept a compensation system in their next collective bargaining agreement. An attempted procedural disguise of the system incorporating a league bylaw into the standard player contract and embellishing it with the term "equalization payment" failed to mask its effect, at least for one interested party.
"When they adopted it, I thought I'd die," Garvey says. "It's the same as the Rozelle Rule. We kill ourselves to get rid of it, and then hockey and basketball go ahead and accept it."
Hockey certainly has on paper. Except for one paragraph in the standard player contract, you don't even have to read the fine print.
"Each time that a player becomes a free agent and the right to his service is subsequently acquired by any club other than the club with which he was last under contract," reads Section 9A.6. of the bylaw, "the club first acquiring the right to his services shall make an equalization payment to the club with which such player was under contract. Each club may acquire as many free agents as it wishes subject to the provisions of Section 9."
Imagine Bobby Clarke or Phil Esposito or Mike Bossy or Ryan Walter walking around with "I am an equalization payment" around their necks. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't.
It already did to Dale McCourt. When his Detroit Red Wings lured goalie Roger Vachon from Lost Angeles the Kings sought McCourt in return.
The Red Wings thought the 1977-78 Rookie of the Year was too much of a ransom and offered two other starters in exchange. The Kings didn't like their deal and, "subject to the provisions of Section 9," the teams went to arbitration.
The arbitrator, bound to pick one team's offer with no changes, decided McCourt would go to L.A. McCourt decided that he'd really rather be in Detroit and sued the league, the players association, and both teams, requesting an injunction to prevent them from transferring him.
He won in U.S. District Court, where Judge Robert DeMascio, notwithstanding language that the arbitrator's decision was "final and not subject to review," declared the equalization payment system a violation of the antitrust laws. He was reversed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, leaving Section 9 intact. McCourt and Vachon stayed in Detroit, which still isn't as good a team as the Kings. So much for poetic justice.
If the scenario is a clone of the Rozelle Rule, with an outside arbitrator substituted for the commissioner, it soon may not be.
"McCourt pointed up one aspect the players found hard to live with," NHL vice president and general counsel Gil Stein says. "They accept the right to trades, and they accept the need for maintaining a system that yields competitive balance, as the equalization payment does. But where management doesn't want a player to leave and he wants to stay, then is forced to go, is unacceptable."
Now the parties are attempting to find an acceptable method. The players had the right, under Section 9.03 of the agreement, to terminate it and start over again if the WHA and NHL merged. The two did, but the players did not exercise their right and agreed to a continuation of the present agreement for another two years.
"I think the players' interests are freedom of movement, avoiding a McCourt situation, and getting the most dollars possible," Stein says. "The owners' interests are holding on to their stars and improving their teams if they don't win the Stanley Cup.
"The system is tested from the point of view that a guy coming close to playing out his option can get a good contract. The opportunity to move, helps him get that contract. Just because there isn't much movement doesn't mean the system doesn't work. If you create the opportunity to move, you don't need movement for it to be a success.
"I'm glad we don't have the situation baseball does. What if someone came in and took away all the Caps and left nothing in return? It'd be hard to compete against a team that rolled over you with the best players money could buy. We think the system helps maintain competitive balance in the league."