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 grin").

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. Still,

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 is.

Hruska: Does the draft system do that?

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 clause.

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 sports).

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):

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  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    -baseball's great emancipator, Curt Flood, explicitly likened the reserve clause to slavery

    I can only imagine what Martin Bashir had to say about him.

  • John||

    Yes, it killed the reserve clause. But it didn't create a competing league (the ABA still went bust and merged with the NBA) and it didn't kill the draft or the various CBA restrictions on free agency and salaries.

    This is a good example of the market working but not in the way that some libertarians would think it would. Libertarian economists are constantly yapping about how in the ideal world there would be competing sports leagues in each sport and no draft or such. No, that is not how the market works in this case. Since people root for laundry and are very loyal customers, you can't sell the Nets to Knicks fans the way you can sell a Toyota to a Ford owner. So, it is very difficult to start a new league. But it is not impossible. If the owners really fucked over the top players, especially in a personality and star driven sport like the NBA, someone would start a rival league with the a star NBA players. But since that is hard and likely to fail, the owners can screw over the players some. Thus we have a CBA and a draft and a maximum salary. The owners screw the players right up to the point that it is still not worth it to form a new league. This is called equilibrium. The only threat to that equilibrium would be if the dollar ever hit the toilet enough or overseas leagues ever got big enough to poach top players out of the NBA. Then, the NBA would have to compete with a league that sold to different fans and thus wouldn't go broke.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    Good points in there, but I would add that a barrier to creating a new league is that it would really take quite the investment, since you can not just create a franchise (which is costly enough), but an entire, viable league. It would take a League of Extraordinarily Wealthy Gentlemen to create such a league.

  • John||

    You would need at least 8 teams. There are probably 8 billionaires out there who would be willing to do it, if you had a legitimate shot of poaching the top players out of the NBA. But, the NBA would have to really screw over its top players.

    In the long run, the biggest threat to the NBA is the Fed. If it ever gets to the point that the dollar isn't worth anything compared to foreign currencies, the money paid overseas in foreign currency will be too great to turn down. You can see this in soccer where the top players from Brazil and Argentina all play in Europe. That is not because the Brazilian and Argentine teams don't pay. It is because they don't pay in Euros.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I agree, very insightful and good points regarding how the foreign leagues might be the real future competition.

  • John||

    It happened in hockey. For a long while Canadian teams couldn't compete with US NHL teams because they had to pay in lower valued Canadian dollars. I think they are pretty much near parity now. I bet a Canadian team finally wins the Stanley cup in the next few years as the Fed destroys the dollar.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Especially if oil prices rise. The extent to which the value of the Canadian dollar is tied to oil is often overlooked.

  • BakedPenguin||

    You can see this in soccer where the top players from Brazil and Argentina all play in Europe.

    Until they hit their mid-thirties. Then they join the retirement league, aka the MLS.

  • Swiss Servator, referendiffic!||

    'Murican League of Senescence?

  • KPres||

    ""It would take a League of Extraordinarily Wealthy Gentlemen to create such a league.""

    What is this, 1910?

    Do you understand how corporations work?

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I think I do, but I am not aware of national sports leagues that are run as corporations (well, they may be incorporated in some sense but they usually are essentially a collection of extremely wealthy owners, no?).

  • KPres||

    They're usually owned by a small collection of wealthy people. But that's because wealthy people want to own sports teams, it's not a pure investment, so given that added incentive, they're going to outbid any corporation that's bound by it's shareholders. That's different than saying a corporation couldn't raise the necessary capital.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    So it is theoretically possible, but in the real world does not happen. Like communism.

  • KPres||

    If it's possible then you don't have barriers to entry.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    What if it is just unrealistic?

  • KPres||

    Or maybe the league just isn't doing anything wrong? Monopolies can exist as long as they don't abuse their market power, in which case there's no market failure.

  • KPres||

    John, this is dumb. You don't have to convince Nets or Knicks fans to abandon their teams, you can just convince the Nets or the Knicks to abandon the NBA and join your new league.

    And what about the ABA? That was a very successful league until the merger.

  • John||

    The ABA went broke. It was never a successful league. It always lost money. That is why it merged. If it was making money it would not have merged or if it had, it would have merged with all of its teams rather than just four. The ABA, like the old AFL was always a money loser.

    And you have to do more than convince the players. First, the players are under contract. So you can't just go and get all of them to move. Second, the NBA has a lot of money, so it would take a huge amount of money to convince them. Beyond that, the marketing ability that comes with playing with an established league makes it even harder. The old USFL convinced a lot of top college talent to sign. And all of those players were less marketable than they would have been had they gone to the NFL. That is an even bigger handicap today than it was then.

    Second, no, it is not just the players. It is the laundry. There is nothing interesting about sports if you don't have a rooting interest. This is why soccer never catches on in the US. It is not that soccer is any better or worse than any other sport. It is because people in the US, unlike Europe, don't grow up rooting for a soccer team and thus don't have a rooting interest in soccer and don't find it as exciting as a result.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    -The old USFL convinced a lot of top college talent to sign.

    And if I recall rightly the NFL was able to undermine the USFL anyways by essentially telling stadiums and networks that if they played with the USFL they might not get to play with the NFL.

    I concede that it is theoretically possible to form new leagues, and possibly under some form other than eight or more rich fellows agreeing to start one up, but empirically it does not seem to happen that way because of all the practical barriers John and I mention (and more I bet).

  • John||

    The USFL played in the spring and had a national TV contract with ABC from the very beginning. The old AFL didn't have that in its first few years. The USFL teams mostly played in markets like Birmingham, Oklahoma City and San Antonio that didn't have NFL teams. But it still failed.

    To the extent that it could have succeeded, it would have had to have proven damages in its anti-trust suit or got DOJ to step in and get an court order for the NFL to subsidize it as competition. What happened was they won their anti-trust law suit but the jury found they would have failed anyway and gave them $1 in damages. DOJ never sought to force the NFL to create a competing league.

    In the end, the only way you can say that the USFL failed is because DOJ failed to fully enforce anti-trust law and force the NFL to help create a competitor. If you really love anti-trust law, I guess you would think that is a good thing. But whatever you think of it, the Feds forcing the NFL to help create a competing league, is not the free market.

  • KPres||

    Another company that doesn't make money: Amazon.

    I'm not buying any of this. The NBA brand doesn't matter that much. The teams' individual brands matter, but like I said, they could join the new league if they were unsatisfied with the NBA. But for the most part, they're not, so there's not much for a potential competitor to improve on.

  • John||

    The teams' individual brands matter, but like I said, they could join the new league if they were unsatisfied with the NBA.

    No they couldn't. The NBA owns those rights. The players might, but the brand belongs to the NBA. The NBA or the NFL are both one corporation with different divisions that compete against one another. They are in now way groups of competing companies. They only pretend they are because of our idiotic anti-trust laws.

  • KPres||

    Are you saying the Knicks don't own the name "Knicks"? Is that how it works? And the players' contracts as well?

    (honest question, because if so this is the first I've heard of such)

  • KPres||

    If the league owns the brands, then why are people harping at Dan Snyder to change the Redskins? Shouldn't their gripe be with the NFL? Makes me doubt your claim.

  • John||

    That is how it works. The "Knicks' belong to the NBA. If the owner decided to leave the league or move to Los Angeles, the NBA could tell him to leave his name there.

    Remember when the Browns moved to Baltimore? The NFL told them they had to leave the name behind. Same thing when the Sonics moved to OKC. They had to leave the name behind. It is all a farce. The NBA is one corporation with 30 or whatever different owners each assigned to a division.

  • KPres||

    Yeah, but that might have been "as a condition of being in the league". INOW, they said "you have to change the name in order to play in our league". That's different than owning the rights. Obviously with moving to a new league that wouldn't be an issue. Again, what about my redskins example? I'm not saying your right or wrong, but I'm going to need a link.

  • Rhywun||

    people in the US, unlike Europe, don't grow up rooting for a soccer team

    They do now, with a league that's been around for 18 years.

  • John||

    True. And in the future the MLS might get big for that reason. Although, I think that it's potential is limited because thanks to satellite, you can now watch the top European teams and root for them instead.

    Think about it, if you were a fanatical basketball fan and were living in Germany, would you spend your time and money rooting for the local crappy German pro team or spend it watching the NBA on satellite? The same situation exists with soccer here. Why get all involved with some second rate MLS team when you can watch EPL on NBC Sports 1 every weekend?

  • Rhywun||

    It's not the same though. The 'bond' with my crappy local team is much stronger than the bond with any team in Europe. In fact I spend money on both.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Exactly. It's also easy to watch both the local team and the Euro team, since the 5-6 hour time difference means they probably won't be on at the same time.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Ah yes, soccer will take the US by storm. And those fusion reactors are just around the corner. I've been hearing this for 4 decades.

  • Swiss Servator, referendiffic!||

    +1 Kyle Rote Jr.

  • Rhywun||

    I don't know what "take the US by storm" entails, but soccer is clearly far more popular in the US now than it was 4 decades ago - if one goes by the strength of the domestic league and the ease of finding worldwide games on cable are anything to go by.

  • Rhywun||

    (remove 1 "go by")

  • CE||

    Soccer is worse than other sports.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    I'm a libertarian. And I think sports leagues are obvious natural monopolies. And so are the players unions.

    Just for the record.

  • CE||

    And those natural monopolies can be undermined by someone starting a new league and running it better.

  • Sevo||

    So does Trump pay Barry a royalty every time he combs his hair?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    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.

    Vile primitivist dog-eat-dog kkkapitalisms. When will we be free?

  • John||

    How is anyone's ability to earn money limited? If you don't like the NBA, work for someone else.

  • CE||

    By the draft and by maximum salary rules. Let the rich owners go for it, and bid freely for the best talent. Abolish the draft and stop rewarding failure. Let teams that can't make it in small cities move to bigger markets with richer owners. The league would be better.

  • John||

    And what is with the Barry hate? Barry wasn't a douchebag. Barry was just a genius who didn't suffer fools. Barry was one of the most talented and basketball savvy players in history. He understand the game better than his coaches or his teammates and couldn't tolerate their primitive, by his standard, understanding of the game. He was basically a white, slightly less talented Oscar Robertson.

    The comparison of Robertson's and Barry's public image shows a lot about race in this country. Both were spectacularly talented and smart players. You want to know how to do anything in basketball, watch how one of those two guys did it. They both were nearly technically perfect basketball players. They were not just great athletes who did things wrong or unorthodox and got away with it because they were freakish athletes. They were great athletes who did everything the textbook way it is supposed to be done. They were both so good and so smart they couldn't tolerate mere mortals who did it well some of the time. It made them both difficult teammates, although they would have made great teammates for each other because each would have been the only other person on the team worth of the others' respect. Yet, Robertson is remembered as the classic angry black man and Barry is remembered as a douche bag. And that, angry black man and douche bag, is the essence of white and male masculine public image in sports.

  • GILMORE||

    He is also a hot hand at bumper pool

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqhc-Spnbeg

  • Zeb||

    None of what you say refutes the notion that he was a douchebag as well as all of those good things.

  • GILMORE||

    ITS THE SAME REASON YOU SNOBS HATE SARAH PALIN!!

    (Lashes about, clawing and frothing)

  • John||

    Yes it does. All of the things he did that make Nick say he is a douche bag don't mean that at all. It means he was a genius and the people who played with him should have gotten over themselves.

  • Ice Nine||

    Apparently it's because he used the words "watermelon" and "Bill Russell" in the same sentence.

  • John||

    Russell was another guy wasn't exactly easy to know or to play with. Most great athletes are not.

  • ChrisO||

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

    This guy's spiritual heirs are still running amok in DC.

    I will admit that unlimited free agency has been a disaster for the quality of the on-court product in the NBA. You don't get the level of team play that existed prior to the '90s.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I do not blame that on free agency as much as the league directing referees to effectively end defense as part of the NBA product. What is left is who can throw the ball down the hardest and most spectacularly, so 'team play' becomes less important. You need a point guard who can dribble down and pass it to the star, who, if breathed upon in the wrong way, is at least going to go to the foul line.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Libertarian economists are constantly yapping about how in the ideal world there would be competing sports leagues in each sport and no draft or such.

    WTF? Beat that dead hobbyhorse, John. Beat the fuck out of it.

    Speaking solely for myself. I wonder what a sports universe without government guaranteed profits might look like.

  • John||

    Exactly the same as it does now, only without the nice stadiums. Not every product is the same and not every market looks alike.

    If you think the only thing stopping a competing basketball or football league is some government conspiracy, you either don't understand economics or you don't understand sports or both.

    You are not a stupid guy Brooks. Why do you insist on being such a half wit about this subject? You understand economics. You certainly understand entry barriers. Well entry barriers exist not just because of government. They can exist because of capital and the nature of the customer base too. As Bo points out above, you can't just form one team. You have to form a league of multiple teams. And since all basketball fans already have a team they root for, you have to convince them to root for a new team. That is virtually impossible.

    Sports is just an interesting and different market. There is nothing interesting or entertaining about it without a rooting interest. And creating that rooting interest in customers takes decades sometimes.

  • KPres||

    You're an idiot, John.

  • John||

    No, you are an idiot. You are a fucking half wit who doesn't understand sports or economics. You are in fact dumber than the typical liberal. A liberals doesn't know anything about economics. So he at least has an excuse. You in contrast do and still manage not to understand what is happening here. In other words, you know just enough about economics to be dangerous. Your opinion on this matter means there is no reason to listen to anything you say about economics, becuase clearly you might understand some of the concepts of the market, you don't know how to apply them and even if you do you are such a fanatical idiot, you won't follow them to their rational conclusions when such conclusions go against whatever ideal you have created in your mind.

    You have this view of an ideal market of competing leagues. The economic analysis when properly done show that won't happen. But you think every market must look like your ideal because you are too stupid or too fanatical to understand and apply the concepts.

    You should try thinking sometime. What makes economics so interesting and economic analysis such a powerful tool for understanding the world is cases like this where the market looks different than other markets and the result of the analysis is counter intuitive. You miss all of that. But, hey you are probably not smart enough to know what you are missing.

  • KPres||

    blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

    "The economic analysis when properly done show that won't happen."

    Well, you certainly haven't presented it, then.

  • GILMORE||

    "He was a vain, egotistical, offensive jerk who rarely missed an opportunity to offend, either intentionally or not"

    SUGARFREE CRIES, "FATHER!!!! THE SLEEPER HAS AWAKENED!"

  • Rhywun||

    let's not hold them accountable for all the taxpayer dollars that are now propping up big-league sports

    That's a pretty glaring omission. I will begin to believe sports stars are worth all those millions if they're earning it without my subsidy - until then, not.

  • John||

    That is a good point. We shouldn't be subsidizing stadiums. When we do, that money necessarily translates into higher salaries. So, it is not just the owners who are welfare queens, it is the players too.

  • CE||

    On a related note, Kobe Bryant signs with the Lakers for 2 more years at 23.5 and 25.0 million, despite being 35 years old and unable to practice due to an Achilles tendon injury last season.

    http://espn.go.com/los-angeles.....les-lakers

    I'm not sure why the Lakers want to handicap themselves that far into the future.

  • Calidissident||

    As a Laker fan, I think the reasons are 1) Kobe makes them more money than that, so even if it's not a good basketball move, it makes sense from a financial and PR standpoint and 2) The free agent class isn't very good for the next two years (the Lakers have no shot at Lebron). I think they're hoping to lure someone like Durant or Love in 2016.

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