How Did An Injured Rookie Nearly Destroy the NFL Draft?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about football and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the football urban legends featured so far.

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: A lawsuit by an injured rookie very nearly eliminated the NFL draft!

James McCoy Smith (born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, which led to him getting the nickname “Yazoo”) was drafted in the first round by the Washington Redskins as the twelfth overall pick.

The defensive back signed for $50,000 and proceeded to suffer a neck injury in his first season in the NFL, ending his career as soon as it began.

Sounds familiar enough – plenty of sad stories like that in the NFL.

However, Smith decided to DO something about it.

In 1970, he sued the NFL under the assertion that the NFL Draft was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that the draft was an unreasonable restraint against trade. He should have been able to negotiate a contract for his services on the open market, and if that were the case, he surely would have made more than $50,000. So he wanted the NFL to reimburse him for the money he lost due to the draft.

Well, the district court agreed with Smith and he was awarded nearly $300,000 in treble damages. Remember, only Major League Baseball has antitrust protections from the government, so the NFL was in a tough spot.

They naturally appealed to the Court of Appeals, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled AGAINST the NFL in 1977, determining that 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.”

WOW!

That’s some heady stuff right there.

That’s the sort of thing that could have eliminated the draft ENTIRELY!

The NFL knew this, of course, so while the case was going on, they pursued a different angle. The courts had recently ruled in a couple of notable cases in the 1960s that an exception to the anti-trust laws DID exist – it just had to be agreed on by the union of those affected by the monopoly.

So before the Court of Appeals even issued their ruling, the NFL had worked out a new agreement with the Player’s Association specifically codifying the draft under the agreement of the Player’s Association (the Player’s Union has never been a friend to rookies, as the Union heads are, reasonably enough, veteran players).

Thusly, the NFL narrowly avoided what could have been a game-changer throughout the world of sports!

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Eriq Gardner for his brilliant article on Slate on the topic. He goes into much greater detail on the subject here. Be sure to give it a read!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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