THE FREE-AGENCY FANDANGO
Last week, as NFL players walked the picket line in the cause of unencumbered free agency, their NBA counterparts went to court for the same purpose. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) filed suit in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., charging the league and its owners with violating antitrust law. The suit calls for the abolition of the NBA's college draft, salary cap and right-of-first-refusal provision, all of which restrict player movement. "It comes down to free agency," says Gerald Krovatin, a lawyer for the union. "Players want the right to decide who they want to play for...without artificial restraints."
But do the NBA players really want unrestricted freedom? Possibly not. In fact, their lawsuit, like the NFL strike, is a bargaining gambit calculated to win concessions in negotiations that may or may not include major breakthroughs in free agency.
The NBPA met with management nine times during the moratorium, and whatever the disposition of the suit, there will be more meetings. This litigate-and-negotiate dance is not new in sport. In 1976, after pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally brought an end to baseball's era of indentured servitude with their successful challenge of the sport's reserve clause, a provision that bound a player to his original team in perpetuity, union chief Marvin Miller proceeded to the bargaining table and settled for a free-agency system more restrictive than the freedom of movement granted by the arbitrator. Similarly, when Baltimore Colt tight end John Mackey won an antitrust suit against the NFL in 1976, the decision sounded the death knell for the Rozelle Rule. Under the rule a team signing a free agent was penalized by a requirement that it pay compensation to the player's former team. But the freedom won by football players proved fleeting. The NFL Players Association promptly bargained away free agency in return for better pensions and medical insurance.
October 11, 1987
NBA players also have pulled back when free agency was in their grasp. Court decisions in the Oscar Robertson antitrust case, which, among other things, blocked the NBA's proposed merger with the ABA, were going the players' way when they agreed to settle in 1976. As a result the merger went through, and the players gained a far more favorable contract but not free agency. In 1982 another players' lawsuit prevented the league from establishing a salary cap. In subsequent negotiations the union accepted a cap, but it was a much higher cap than management had originally offered. "Every union has ultimately agreed to some restrictions on player mobility," says Duke law professor John Weistart, coauthor of The Law of Sports. "Players tend to talk about free movement, but they understand it would not be in their long-term interest to observe pure free-market rules. Sport is in a unique situation as an industry. With unlimited bidding, someone can buy up all the talent, competition suffers, and the industry itself is threatened because fans lose interest."
Weistart may be exaggerating. The era of increased free agency in baseball (a golden age temporarily ended by the owners' brazenly collusive practices of the past two years) was one of greater parity among teams and soaring attendance. But what's significant is that many pro athletes agree with Weistart that they must compromise on free agency to promote stability. For example, NBA players accepted the salary cap in 1982 because owners opened their books, showing considerable red ink.
The NBPA insists that conditions have changed. "Now the league is healthy, and the salary cap is not necessary any longer," says Charles Grantham, the union's executive vice-president.
Don't be surprised if some version of the salary cap, and the draft and the right of first refusal, is retained in negotiations with the NBA owners. "That's the key thing, that bargaining continue," says Weistart. "That will come in collective bargaining. You're looking for a solution that respects the individual dignity and rights of the player but also restrains unlimited bidding by the owner. That's hard to resolve. We can expect that free agency and player mobility will continue to be the issue in sports for years to come."
Jerry Pritikin, the Bleacher Preacher of Wrigley Field, feels as though he has been excommunicated. A Cubs fan for 42 years and a fixture in the bleachers for the past three, Pritikin wears, or used to wear, a T-shirt that reads JERRY PRITIKIN, BLEACHER PREACHER, THE GOSPEL OF THE CUBS. He claims to have converted 1,500 nonbelievers into Cubs fans, baptizing them with an oath that invokes the names of Bill Veeck Sr., Bill Veeck Jr. and Charlie Grimm, the last man to manage a Cub team in the World Series (42 years ago).
The seeds of the present trouble were sown a couple of seasons back when Pritikin and some other fans in the bleachers tossed a Frisbee around with visiting Mets pitchers Ron Darling and Roger McDowell, who were standing in the outfield. Since then, when the Mets have come to Wrigley, McDowell always spots Pritikin in the crowd and asks, "Where's your Frisbee?"
That's what happened on Sept. 22, two hours before a Cubs-Mets game was scheduled to begin. It was raining, but as usual Pritikin was already in his seat. McDowell came out to rightfield and asked Pritikin the usual question. This time, though, Pritikin had come prepared. He took his Frisbee out of a bag and was about to throw it to McDowell when an usher said, "Don't throw it." Maybe the devil made him do it, maybe not, but Pritikin threw the Frisbee anyway. The usher expelled him from the park, breaking Pritikin's 75-game attendance streak. The Cubs beat the Mets 6-2, but it was small comfort to Pritikin, sitting on a bench outside the ballpark.
The Preacher finished up the season by attending the Cubs' next five home games, but things, he says, will never be the same. His T-shirt now reads: THIS SPACE FOR RENT.
LOST AND FOUND
Skip Chappelle, the basketball coach at the University of Maine, is a Down-Easter born and bred, with all the admirable frugality of that breed. Two years ago Chappelle was allocated $72,000 in athletic scholarship money with which to go player-shopping. He spent almost all of it but then set about getting as much of it back as he could. By doing a little research in the student aid office, he found enough academic scholarships, financial need scholarships and foreign tuition waivers—his Black Bears include players from Senegal—for which his players qualified that he was able to return $29,000 to the athletic department. This year's savings are not totaled yet.
In 1986 Chappelle's research in the student aid office uncovered a National Energy Engineering scholarship that the engineering department didn't know existed. Not only that, the basketball player who applied for it, Dean Smith, got it. "It was the first ever awarded a University of Maine student." said mechanical engineering professor Richard Hill.
THE SWILL OF VICTORY
In celebration of a 27-0 win over St. Peters of New Jersey that snapped a 27-game losing streak, the Iona College (N.Y.) Gaels doused their coach with Gatorade. During all the jubilation, senior defensive back Dave Rattiner twisted his knee and is out for the season. "We just didn't know how to celebrate," said Iona sports information director Ray Cella.
SOME VINTAGE ADVERTISING
When Jim Walden took over as football coach at Iowa State this year, he had his work cut out for him. The Cyclones had had only one winning season since 1980. and only eight of last year's starters were back to try again. Four games into the season the Cyclones still are not winning—they lost 56-3 to Oklahoma on Saturday—but Walden has become an Iowa celebrity, and a four-year decline in season ticket sales has been halted. That's largely because of a promotion inspired by those two lovable hucksters of wine coolers, Frank Bartles and Ed ("We thank you for your support"') Jaymes.
Casting about for something to boost sales, Iowa State's ticket manager, Larry McLaine, hit upon a series of four posters pairing newcomer Walden with the Cyclones' popular basketball coach, Johnny Orr, in Bartles-and-Jaymesian poses and situations. Fifteen thousand free copies of the first poster were snapped up. Then 3,000 of the other three posters were sold for $1 each. "We've had a rise in season ticket sales for the first time in several years, and we have sold 1,000 more student tickets than last year," McLaine says.
Epilogue: The local Bartles & Jaymes distributor also reports that sales of that brand of wine coolers have quadrupled in the vicinity of the school and doubled throughout the state since the campaign was introduced in June.
THEY SAID IT
•Whitey Herzog, St. Louis Cardinals manager, recalling the Texas Ranger club he guided to a 47-91 record in 1973: "We were only two players short of being a contender—Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax."
•Kevin Johnson, the Cleveland Cavaliers' top draft pick: "My hero is Benji, the dog. He's so perfect. He's so unselfish, and he makes so many sacrifices just so all groups of people can get along."
•Phil Garner, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman, on hitting into a triple play: "If we hadn't won, I would have jumped off a tall building. But the way I'm hitting, I wouldn't have hit the ground anyway."