One of the most consequential episodes in the history of American sports began with an All-Star Major Leaguer’s simple wish to avoid the Philadelphia Phillies.
The year was 1969, and not only were the Phillies next-level terrible, but they had signed their first African American player only 12 years ago, in 1957. The team’s fan base also had a reputation for being hostile and racist. So it was no wonder that Curt Flood, a superstar center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, balked when he learned that he’d been traded to Philly. Flood wasted no time in registering his objection with MLB’s commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, writing, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
As uncomfortable as Flood’s allusion to slavery may have made some people feel, the comparison was apt. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, that enslavers often used sports to manipulate enslaved people. Douglass was keenly aware that if enslaved people were rewarded with “holidays” to play ball, wrestle, and run, they would be discouraged from rebelling against their inhumane conditions. He was creating an important narrative: If Black athletes were distracted by sports, then fighting for equal treatment, liberation from bondage, dignity, and respect would become less of a priority. All that was needed to tame a revolution was to give enslaved people just enough occasional privileges. Flood, however, was unwilling to accept financial success in exchange for his silence. His fight for worth and choice was hugely controversial at the time. It ended his career. It also became the foundation on which generational wealth for Black athletes was built.
Flood’s reasoning was logical: He was extraordinarily good at his job, and he deserved to have a say in his career. In a January 1970 interview, the sports broadcaster Howard Cosell asked Flood how he could compare his rift with professional baseball to slavery when he was making $90,000 a year. “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave,” Flood told Cosell. And in his now-famous letter to Kuhn, Flood said that being traded violated his “basic rights as a citizen” and was “inconsistent with the laws of the United States.” Kuhn denied Flood’s request not to be traded, and Flood responded by suing the league, claiming that the sport’s reserve clause—which meant that a team controlled a player’s rights in perpetuity—violated antitrust laws and enforced involuntary servitude.
Although Flood lost his case in the Supreme Court in 1972, his decision to challenge Major League Baseball changed the sport, and created a wave of momentum for professional athletes to control their career. Three years later, the MLB adopted free agency. Both the NBA and the NFL had their own versions of reserve clauses. In 1970—the same year that Flood filed suit against MLB—the NBA legend Oscar Robertson sued the NBA to revoke its reserve clause.
After six years, the NBA finally agreed to a settlement that brought free agency to pro basketball. However, unrestricted free agency didn’t come to the NFL until 1992. These battles over free agency are still relevant today—what Flood stood for has fortified college athletes who are now fighting for their right to be paid for the work they do.
I’ve frequently returned to Flood’s story, and his tenacity, over the course of my career as a sports journalist—to understand both the power dynamics within professional sports, and the position Black athletes occupy in American culture. Flood’s legacy is also personal for me. Now that I’m venturing into entrepreneurship as a co-owner of a production company and building a Spotify podcast network for Black women, Flood’s struggle to be valued is one that drives me to push for control whenever possible. Ownership doesn’t always come in the form of actually owning a business; sometimes it’s about maintaining control of how one’s talents are used. Flood understood that some level of ownership over his talents was a path toward equality.
The colossal salaries that athletes receive today would probably shock Flood if he were still alive. I suspect he’d also be pleased that Black athletes these days are seizing their own power. In 2010, LeBron James turned his free-agent decision into a live-television event, known as “The Decision.” James was criticized for creating a spectacle out of his choice to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, but it was one of the most ostentatious displays of player empowerment seen in recent history—not to mention that James also raised more than $2 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Jim Gray, the broadcaster who anchored “The Decision,” called it “a Curt Flood type of moment.”
Unapologetic displays of autonomy seem to be everywhere in Black culture. In September, the director and screenwriter Tyler Perry joined the billionaire club, but it’s the way he did it that makes the accomplishment more extraordinary. Perry amassed his fortune by owning practically everything he creates, including more than 1,200 episodes of television, 22 feature films, and at least two dozen stage plays, according to Forbes. He makes plays, shows, and movies for underserved Black audiences, and never sought the approval or validation of Hollywood. He found his own path, which included developing content in Georgia, where he built a 330-acre, $250 million studio in Atlanta—a city with a significant Black population. And people in creative industries aren’t just happy to generate income using their primary talents. On top of being the NBA’s biggest star, James has become a significant force in media and content development through his digital-media company, Uninterrupted, and his production company, SpringHill Entertainment. Rihanna has won nine Grammys, but her biggest moneymaker is her beauty line, Fenty, which is worth an estimated $3 billion.
But even professional autonomy does not protect today’s Black athletes from the same systemic racism that Flood endured. It’s hard not to think about Colin Kaepernick in the context of Flood. Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL after he initiated a peaceful protest against racial injustice in 2016. While Flood and Kaepernick sacrificed their careers for different reasons, in different ways, and during different eras, both were severely penalized for confronting white power.
“Before the NBA and NFL, it was the No. 1 sport,” Curt Flood Jr., who oversees the Curt Flood Foundation, told me. “Colin experienced the same blowback from those same ‘patriotic’ people, which resonated in line with what my dad did.”
Flood was ostracized for daring to draw the link between his legal case and the oppression that Black people faced in America. His decision to challenge baseball’s power structure also cost him his career when he was in his prime. He had helped the St. Louis Cardinals win two World Series titles. He’d won seven straight Gold Gloves and finished in the top 10 in batting five times. But after the 1969 season, Flood asked for a pay raise—and that may have prompted the Cardinals to trade him. Once one of the best center fielders in the game, Flood’s career ended when he was 31.
“He had no support from active players,” Flood Jr. says. “Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg were the only two connected with baseball who testified on his behalf. He was outgunned not only by the white power structure, but his own teammates and cats that he came up through the league with.”
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to see Black people pay the price for challenging the power structure, while others benefit from their sacrifice. A baseball arbitrator’s ruling opened up free agency for the sport after two white baseball players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, refused to sign new deals with their teams, because they were unhappy with the terms. They filed a grievance with the league after playing their 1975 season without new contracts. The arbitrator, Peter Seitz, ruled that they could become free agents and sign with whichever team they pleased. Seitz’s ruling had immediate results. Messersmith earned $90,000 in 1974. After the ruling, he signed a three-year contract with the Atlanta Braves worth $1 million.
Unlike Flood, Messersmith and McNally—who retired after the 1975 season—were never punished or blackballed for fighting for professional freedom. Today, the average annual salary for an MLB player is $4.4 million, which is the second-highest of all the major professional sports, after the NBA.
Although Flood’s letter to Kuhn shifted the power axis in baseball, Flood still isn’t in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Marvin Miller, who supported Flood in his lawsuit and was the first president of the MLB Players Association, was inducted into the hall last year. Although the association introduced the Curt Flood Award to honor players who advance players’ rights, Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame because of how he helped modernize the game. He also belongs in the Hall of Fame because of the movement he began to help assert Black people’s worth in American culture.
To recognize Flood in this way would be a long-overdue sign of respect for a man whose career was stolen from him, a man who sacrificed his own success to prove that money without dignity is worthless.
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