Yesterday, July 8, 2020, marked the tenth anniversary of The Decision, when LeBron James announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. The NBA’s best player was “exercising his right to free agency”. In the decade since then, LeBron has won multiple titles, with the Heat and then upon his return to Cleveland, and he’s been one of the league’s most outspoken critics of the Trump administration and he led the league in supporting Black Lives Matter, in addition to his work as a philanthropist and community activist. There are many who believe that years from now, when we look back on the story of LeBron James, his decision to walk away from the team that was offering him the most money at the time would be the moment that he came into his power. But athletes haven’t always had power. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that athletes had no power at all. LeBron had a choice that many athletes before him never had. It was a choice that Curt Flood never had.
In 1969, Curt Flood was one of the best players in Major League Baseball. He’d won three World Series titles with the St Louis Cardinals. He’d just received his seventh Gold Glove. The Cardinals traded him to the Phillies. But he didn’t want to play for the Phillies. At the time, Philadelphia baseball fans had a reputation for being abusive and racist, so Curt Flood refused to go, and ended up suing MLB over the league’s Reserve Clause. In short, back then, Major League Baseball teams basically owned a player for as long as they wanted, pretty much their entire career, and could trade a player wherever they wanted, without input from the player. The players had no rights. This is why, before the Reserve Clause was abolished, Major League Baseball was referred to as a “plantation”. Curt Flood challenged the plantation – even though he was advised that doing so would cost him his career and all his money. He did it anyway because he refused to be treated like a piece of property, in other words a slave. When famed broadcaster Howard Cosell asked him in an interview how he could possibly be a slave when he was making $90,000 a year, Curt said, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave”. He was vilified by the league, by much of the media, by the fans.
Curt Flood took his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and lost in 1972. Although there were players at the time who supported the spirit of his fight, no active players supported him publicly. He never played baseball again. Three years later, through arbitration, two white baseball players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, became free agents. The Reserve Clause was defeated. And players in other sports were able to take advantage of free agency – to the point now that athletes have so many more advantages and opportunities for security and protection. Because it was Curt Flood who led the way. And he paid the price for it. Standing up to baseball, the most American of institutions, and demanding his rights cost him his job and his mental health. He struggled with addiction, he went bankrupt, and while he was eventually recognised for his leadership and courage, and is now widely credited for dramatically making conditions much more equitable for professional athletes, not just in baseball but in all North American professional sports leagues, the fact is, he had to bear the sacrifice.
Four decades later, Colin Kaepernick is still not playing football. He’s working with Ava DuVernay on a scripted series about his early life for Netflix and this week it was announced that he’s signed a partnership deal with Disney so, no, he’s not likely going to be in financial ruin the way Curt Flood was but he has lost almost four years of football dreams – both because he denounced anti-Black racism and opposed police brutality but also because the NFL refused to support him. They have recently tried to seem as though they’re coming around, but it was almost an obligation since public support has shifted heavily in Colin’s favour… which is a luxury that Curt Flood didn’t have in his time.
In 2014, The New York Times produced a piece about Curt Flood, “The Athlete Who Made LeBron James Possible”. You could say that he also made Colin Kaepernick possible. And in turn Colin Kaepernick made Bubba Wallace possible. Bubba Wallace is NASCAR’s only full-time Black driver and after the murder of George Floyd, he urged his sport to ban the Confederate flag, over the objections of a large part of the NASCAR fanbase. NASCAR did the right thing. Bubba Wallace was not abandoned by his sport or his peers. Instead, he’s been embraced and protected. Would it have been this way if not for Colin Kaepernick? Would it have been this way if not for Curt Flood?
Of course the lessons of the Curt Flood story aren’t just limited to sports. It’s applicable to so many other workplaces. Gabrielle Union spoke up against America’s Got Talent and NBC and lost her job. Jemele Hill, who had been calling out Donald Trump’s racism, also called out Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones for threatening players who supported Colin Kaepernick, and got suspended. Over the last few months, Black and Indigenous people across all industries have been pointing out the racism in their employment spaces, from media to tech to academia (the new “Black at” movement on social media was started by Black women who are sharing with each other their experiences with racist students, faculty, and administration in schools, colleges, and universities), at great personal risk.
So for those of us who are not Black and not Indigenous, for other people of colour, like me, who may be part of the model minority in the western world, this is the opportunity for partnership, even if you have been problematic in the past, like me. This is what that the Black and Indigenous community has been asking: for the rest of us to acknowledge our complacency and complicity, to account for it, and then to show up and do the work so that they don’t have to be alone.
Curt Flood was alone and look at the change he was able to effect on his own. Imagine then what can happen if it’s more than one.
Here’s the NYT piece on Curt Flood from 2014:
And here’s more on Curt Flood from Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns:
My Curt Flood education came thanks to a friend called G. Over a decade ago, around 2008, while staying at G’s for a few days, I borrowed a book (she says I stole it, and I guess she’s right because I never gave it back, it’s still on my bookcase) from her called How Race Is Lived In America by correspondents of the New York Times. I’ve mentioned this book a few times here on this site because it profoundly changed the way I think and it was part of the change of this website. Another book that really shaped my perspective is Claudine Rankine’s Citizen. This is the point of reading and learning and growing; this is the value of resources, and friendship can be one of the most valuable resources. Thanks to all our friends who help us improve.
Yours in gossip,