This weekend, the National Football League will hold its annual extravaganza in which college athletes are assigned to the league's 32 franchises. The drafted players have no say in where they're going, of course—an athlete is bound by the NFL's union contract to negotiate the terms of his employment with only the team that happened to call his name from the podium. Those unfamiliar with this ritual may find it strange that team owners are allowed to conspire to claim rights over the lives and labor of young men. Experienced draftologists will know that the NFL Players Association sanctions this compromise of labor rights, as it has for many years now. To understand how that came about, we must recall the story of the NFL's most notorious draft-dodger, James "Yazoo" Smith.
In 1968, the Washington Redskins used their first-round pick (12th overall) on Smith, an All-American defensive back from the University of Oregon. The rookie signed with the team for $50,000, and his unremarkable first season culminated in a career-ending neck injury during Week 14. Smith seemed destined for quick obscurity. Then he sued the NFL.
Two years after his retirement, Smith went before a judge and asserted that the draft constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Had it not been for the draft, he argued, he would have been able to negotiate a more lucrative contract for his one year as a professional. And he demanded that the NFL make up the difference.
The case succeeded at the district court, securing $276,000 in treble damages for Smith, and he won again when the league appealed. In 1977, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the "draft inescapably forces each seller of football services to deal with one, and only one buyer, robbing the seller, as in any monopsonistic market, of any real bargaining power."
For a moment, Yazoo Smith seemed destined to stand beside Curt Flood, the outfielder who had fought Major League Baseball's "reserve clause" in 1970 and opened the door to free agency, as a giant in the annals of sports-labor history. If the Yazoo decision held up, there would be no more drafts in professional football—or, indeed, in any other professional sport.
But league lawyers (including future Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) had already been working on a Plan B. They realized that even if they lost the Smith case, they might still manage an end-around on the rules against monopolies by securing the support of the NFL Players Association (founded in 1956). A set of recent Supreme Court decisions—in a 1965 case involving meat-cutters and a 1975 case involving plumbers—had established a "non-statutory labor exemption" to antitrust law. That meant the leagues could still hold their drafts as long as they could get the unions to agree to them.
In March 1977, before the appeals court reached its decision in Smith v. Pro-Football, the league and the players arrived at a new collective-bargaining agreement. For the first time, the players association explicitly agreed to sanction the NFL draft. (Other professional sports leagues soon followed suit.)
When you tune in for coverage of the draft this weekend, keep this history in mind: For more than 70 years, "sellers of football services" have been systematically deprived of their bargaining power by being forced into the amateur draft. For the last three decades, the blessing of the players union has ensured the legality of this arrangement. But that doesn't mean the system is fair or equitable. In fact, the players association doesn't really have an incentive to protect the interests of future professionals.