Courtside: We can learn from Curt Flood in more ways than one

In 1969, there was a man named Curt Flood. 

Flood was a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. Through his first 14 seasons in the league, Flood had established himself as a more-than-serviceable ballplayer. An offensive superstar by no means, Flood’s prowess with the leather — demonstrated by seven consecutive Gold Glove awards from 1963 to 1969 — made him one of MLB’s more coveted center fielders. 

In October right after the culmination of the 1969 season, the Cardinals attempted to trade Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood did not want to go, for a multitude of reasons — one of which I’ll introduce now, one of which I’ll introduce later. 

Flood, who had no say in the trade, refused to accept the notion that he had no control over his own career path. After unsuccessfully asking MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to declare him a free agent and threatening to retire, Flood filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league. The rule in question: the reserve clause, which essentially gave a team full rights to a player for his whole career unless they decided to move on from or trade the player. There was no free agency. 

After receiving criticism for fighting against the league that was paying him a $90,000 annual salary — then a hefty contract for MLB players — Flood famously said, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.”

Long story short: Flood lost the suit — the Supreme Court cited a longstanding antitrust exemption for professional baseball — but the momentum his defiance created and the court’s admission that the grounds for the exemption were weak paved the path for free agency to be instituted in baseball in 1976. 

I introduce Flood’s story for two reasons. I’ll start with the first. 

MLB owners and players are currently at each other’s throats over money regarding the return to play amid the coronavirus pandemic. The two parties agreed in late March to a plan that, the players believe, ensures them prorated salaries based solely on the number of games that the league is able to fit in once play resumes. If 82 games are played, players would receive 50.6% of their original 162-game-based 2020 salary. End of discussion.

Owners, meanwhile, believe that the language in the agreement gives them room to renegotiate should the circumstances of the pandemic not allow for fans at stadiums once play resumes. Frankly, it’s a stretch. Owners are trying to walk back on the agreement, and they’ve since mulled or formally proposed disappointing new deals: a 50/50 revenue split between players and owners, bizarre marginal salary cuts in which the highest-paid players could receive somewhere around 15% of their original salary and, announced Monday, full prorated salaries but with the key caveat of a purpose-defeating regular season length of about 50-60 games. 

I’ll put it bluntly: It’s a disgrace. The owners agreed to pay players prorated salaries in March, and now they’re backing out or looking for loopholes. If you find yourself siding with owners because players make millions and they should just be content, don’t fool yourself: About 65% of players make $1 million or less per year, and while I understand that a minimum salary of $563,500 leaves no players particularly pinching pennies, players and billionaire owners are on two separate planes from a financial standpoint.

And this is where Flood comes into play. This war between MLB and its players, this squabble that might prevent baseball from coming back this year altogether, isn’t just about dollars and cents. Though players certainly want to “get mine” — as Tampa Bay Rays southpaw Blake Snell so eloquently put it in a May 14 Twitch stream — the resistance on the players’ part is also about setting precedent. 

Precedent is why MLB players were able to secure free agency and 10-and-5 Rights (full trade veto power if a player has spent 10 years in the league and the last five with his current team), and it’s all because players like Flood stood up and said “fuck no” when the league tried to take advantage of them. It’s why the 1994 strike prevented a salary cap in MLB and players can reel in even more astronomical contracts than their counterparts in the NBA or NFL can.

MLB players caving in and accepting even more dramatic pay cuts just to get back on the field wouldn’t leave them to wonder where their next meal would come from, but it would represent a rollback on the historical resistance that has helped MLB become a relatively player-friendly league and would reinforce the notion that at the end of the day, greedy owners wield all the power.

Good on the players for so far resisting exploitation, and I hope they continue to do so. Flood and similar pioneers are the reasons players now have the platform to provide such resistance, and there are countless reasons to use it.

The second reason I introduce Flood will be much shorter than the first — a somewhat tangential closing thought, if you will. It has less to do with sports, but it feels too necessary to omit.

That other reason Flood opposed the trade: Flood, who was Black, perceived Philadelphia as a racist city with hostile fans, and he didn’t want to live or play there.

What, really, has changed in the United States?

Flood in 1969 was threatened by the same racism that still deeply plagues our country in 2020. Think of that if you find yourself focusing more on the methods of the past few days’ protests than the causes for them. Think about how Flood felt the need to risk his well-paying job in part to fight such racism — similar to the way many Black people right now feel the need to risk their health and safety during a pandemic to protest the racist ideologies that spread like a virus today and did so in 1969, 1869, 1769 and before.

Suddenly, 1969 doesn’t feel so far in the past. 

Nathan Ackerman is a rising junior writing about sports and sociopolitics. He is also a managing editor of Summer Trojan. His column, “Courtside,” runs every other Wednesday.