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):