In 1970, James "Yazoo" Smith sued the NFL to shut down the draft. What happened next?

The stadium scene.
April 23 2009 5:57 PM

Rookie Abuse

In 1970, James "Yazoo" Smith sued the NFL to shut down the draft. What happened next?

Jake Long. Click image to expand.
Jake Long during the 2008 NFL Draft 

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.

Yazoo who?

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How in the World Did Turkey Just Get 46 Hostages Back From ISIS?

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.