CHICAGO – At midnight, when NBA free agency begins anew and unleashes another rush of multi-million dollar contracts, it’s unlikely that any of the current beneficiaries or their agents will take a moment to think about Oscar Robertson.
But that’s OK, because Robertson won’t be thinking of himself, either. Instead, the Hall of Famer and triple-double legend, will have a good thought or two for Curt Flood.
Robertson is the former NBA star and president of the players association whose landmark class-action, anti-trust lawsuit in 1976 paved the way to NBA free agency. Flood was the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who, six years earlier, tried to take on Major League Baseball’s reserve clause as an individual. His unsuccessful legal fight effectively ended his career and Flood never reaped any benefits from the freedom that came, in MLB’s case, in 1975 with an abitrator’s ruling in the union-backed challenge from pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally.
The courage of both men – back in the day, many considered it to be temerity – comes together Tuesday night when Robertson becomes the inaugural recipient of the Curt Flood Game-Changer Award, presented by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. That group’s Sports Banquet is part of the annual PUSH Expo that started Saturday and runs through Wednesday.
Also at the banquet, NBA legend Spencer Haywood will receive the “Jackie Robinson Trailblazer Award” for his court challenge in 1970 that led to underclassman-eligibility rights.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, who founded the Chicao-based, multi-racial, progressive organization in 1996, spoke with NBA.com over the weekend about the Robertson’s and Haywood’s honors.
“When Curt Flood filed a lawsuit providing for free agency and the freedom to negotiate in the marketplace, many players hid from their own freedom,” Jackson said. “Oscar Robertson stood up and supported the Curt Flood suit.
“His records have endured – the triple-doubles and the like – and he was a force in the NBA as we know it. Oscar Robertson carried himself with a sense of dignity and character on the floor and beyond the playing courts. … He’s paid a huge price for standing up.”
Flood’s actions pave way for free agency
Robertson has talked previously of the price he feels he has paid in NBA opportunities since his playing days. He has seen contemporaries such as Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Willis Reed and his old teammate Wayne Embry carve out careers in teams’ front offices, while plenty of others have had enduring roles as broadcast analysts. Robertson lasted just one season on CBS’s national telecasts in 1974-75, his first upon retiring, and believes the league’s owners – the men he and the NBPA sued – blocked him from any continued work.
That pales, in Robertson’s opinion, to the price paid by Flood. The three-time All-Star and perennial Gold Glove winner next to Lou Brock in St. Louis’ outfield balked when he was traded to Philadelphia after the 1969 season. He missed the entire 1970 season while bucking the reserve clause, which bound players “for life” to the clubs that first signed them.
“I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold,” Flood told then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Flood’s lawsuit was heard and rejected three times, ultimately by the Supreme Court in March 1972 by a 5-3 vote. But with the pressure it brought on MLB and the growing strength of the union led by director Marvin Miller, Flood’s case opened the first cracks of player freedom. In fact, in 1973, baseball’s new 10/5 rule (allowing 10-year veterans who had spent five with their current clubs to veto trades) became known as the “Curt Flood Rule.”
Flood’s skills and health, however, eroded in his year out of baseball. His battle with alcohol worsened, some outside business ventures ran afoul of IRS codes – Flood’s top Cardinals salary was $90,000 – and he sagged under racist hate mail and threats not unlike those heaped on Henry Aaron a few years later.
With the Phillies’ cooperation, Flood worked out a deal to play in 1971 for the Washington Senators. But at 33, he lasted only 13 games, managing seven singles in 35 at-bats before quitting and exiting with just half of his $110,000 salary. Flood’s years after baseball, several spent overseas, were filled with financial and personal struggles and he died of throat cancer in 1997.
“Curt Flood went down the tubes, so to speak, for all the ball players making millions of dollars now,” Robertson told NBA.com. “What a shame that politics played such a part in that, that they were trying to save ‘the integrity of baseball.’ Someone has to pay the price, and he did. I just hope the players today realize that.”
A forgotten hero
Robertson, born 10 months after Flood in 1938, met him in the 1960s through friends who played for the Cincinnati Reds. But they never got a chance to compare notes on their respective legal fights. The Game-Changer award will be presented Tuesday by members of Flood’s family.
“What happened to me was not that drastic,” Robertson said. “But no one ever mentions Curt Flood’s name at all.”
The Rainbox PUSH expo this week is rife with anniversary highlights. Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed into law. Twenty years later, in 1984, Jackson became the first black American to mount a serious Presidential bid.
In a phone interview, the civil rights activist and Baptist minister said he learned of the impact sports can have on society first as an athlete – Jackson went to the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, then transferred to play quarterback at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. He had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s in Greenville, S.C.
“Even in the darkest days, the role that Jackie Robinson played was a pivotal force in my becoming an activist,” Jackson said. “He came to my hometown to speak. He used to give free speeches in the offseason at NAACP conventions – paid his own way.”
Robinson, the Dodgers’ Hall of Famer credited with breaking baseball’s color line in 1947, also triggered a memorable episode at the Greenville Municipal Airport in 1959.
“He spoke at our church,” Jackson recalled, “and our pastor [James Hall] took him to the airport. The pastor’s wife [Elizabeth] refused to sit in the ‘Colored’ section because it was dirty. She sat in the ‘White’ section and Jackie stood with her, and said if they didn’t let her sit down, he was going to come back and lead a demonstration. They backed off, but that’s generally was the start of the [January 1960] march on the airport in Greenville, and that was inspired by Jackie Robinson.”
Flood, Robertson, Haywood ‘changed the game’
Haywood, before traveling to Chicago Monday, spoke of his own trailblazing role on the modern NBA: “I was watching the draft Thursday and I was like, ‘Wow! It was like 99.1 percent of those players were coming in under the ‘Spencer Haywood rule.’ It’s taken for granted now and if you asked them, ‘Who is Spencer Haywood?’ they’d say, ‘Who’s that?’ “
Actually, many will learn at the Las Vegas Summer League in July when Haywood conducts a four-day seminar with all the young players, educating them about the ruling and the sacrifices of other NBA pioneers.
Prior to Tuesday’s banquet, Robertson and Haywood will participate in a roundtable discussion on diversity and inclusion in the sports industry. It will feature a number of speakers with NBA connections, including former players Robert Horry, Terry Cummings, Cedric Ceballos and Jayson Williams, and executives with the National Basketball Retired Players Association. The NBA reportedly has provided financial assistance to the event. Other participants are WWE Wrestler Titus O’Neil, former Super Bowl champions Carey Davis and Dr. Jamie Williams, and Wendy Lewis, MLB’s director of business diversity.
Jackson, mentioning LeBron James‘ stance in April in the emotional days after news broke of Clippers owner Donald Sterling‘s racist remarks, said the movement isn’t over. And again emphasized sports’ role.
“On the backs of athletic heroes – whether it’s Samson or David, Jack Johnson or Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell – on their best days, they’ve been transformers. Social transformers,” Jackson said.
“As indeed LeBron James has done, standing up at the height of his career. We have the highest regard for LeBron in his sense of dignity and leadership. That’s what athletes can do and should do. They have such street power these days. But Curt Flood, Oscar Robertson and Spencer Haywood, they changed the game for players across the league and around the world. The world has free agency.”