Shutdown Corner

Free-agency pioneer Marvin Miller meant a lot to football, too

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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More than anybody else, Marvin Miller fought for the players. (AP)

It was announced on Tuesday morning that 95-year-old Marvin Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, passed away. Miller is best known for taking over an MLB players union in 1966 that was little more than a figurehead organization, and turning it into one of the most powerful economic forces of the 20th century.

Miller had run unions for the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers, and he saw a financial and employment disparity between what professional athletes were paid, and what they were worth. He negotiated sports' first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, organized baseball's first official strike in 1972, and started to pick holes in the onerous contracts presented to players in 1974, when he made pitcher Catfish Hunter a free agent based on a flaw in the contract presented by Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley.

One year later, he finally broke through the reserve clause, the policy by which all players were tied to their teams in a series of one-year contracts, by winning free agency for all baseball players. It was six years after former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood sacrificed his career to protest the reserve clause.

Miller's argument was categorically simple: There is nothing tying those one-year contracts to each other -- therefore, all players should be legally free to negotiate their own conditions at the end of those contracts. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in Miller's favor, as he was legally bound to do, and free agency was born.

Miller never worked for the NFLPA, but the NFLPA was emboldened by his example. Football had its first organized preseason walkout in 1970, and the NFL was forced to accept free agency and a more equitable economy for its players as the tides turned.

When his official tenure in baseball ended in 1982, Miller kept a sharp eye on all sports and their working conditions, and he had a lot to say about the NFL's 2011 lockout.

"I would go on the offensive," Miller told Bloomberg News from his Manhattan apartment in February 2011, a month before the owners locked the players out. "I would demand the end of the salary cap now and in the future and go from there. You've got to show the owners you mean it. I'd follow it immediately with a series of meetings with players to work out their demands for changes in their contracts. And I'd serve them to the owners. I'd show them you're not kidding."

Miller snickered at Roger Goodell's assertion that players and owners were partners in the league's financial prosperity, believed the salary cap to be onerous at best, and said that the NFL had failed many of its former players. When the lockout was at its height, Miller -- who knew and advised current NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith -- blasted the war of perception the NFL was putting forth in an interview with SI.com.

I don't think the public understands what's going on. I don't think the media, by and large, does, either. For example, from President Obama down, we get these clichés. "Oh, it's billionaires arguing with millionaires." Those are not the issues. What are the issues? No one is explaining it to the public. Not so long ago, the National Football League didn't know where its next dollar was coming from. It's now a money powerhouse like we've never seen. A $9 billion-a-year industry, and the top is nowhere to be seen yet. Its revenue is well in excess of baseball or hockey or basketball. They're sitting on top of the world....

And then, despite the $9 billion a year that comes in -- and every indication that there's more coming up -- they come and say we're going to have your salaries cut and we want to increase the amount of work you do, increase the season. In addition to being a bunch of hogs, it means that all the lip service about worrying about the disabilities is hogwash, because we're increasing the number of games you have to play now. In the most brutal of the team sports, yeah, that's going to improve [player] health. Why are they doing this?

As had always been the case, Miller's concerns mirrored those of the players. The 18-game schedule did not survive the final negotiations for the current collective bargaining agreement, player safety became the NFL's most publicly held concern decades after it should have been, and there are currently over 4,000 former players suing the league for failure to disclose the known effects of concussions and other injuries on their post-football lives.

Miller's disdain went all the way to the top, and he seemed personally offended that President Obama didn't take a more serious interest in the negotiations.

"In an industry where the employer is carting money, the players have the lowest salaries in any team sport in America, the lowest pensions, the worst collective bargaining agreement, the shortest careers, and the worst and most serious disability rate," Miller said. "That's what's on the other side of the table. And nobody is explaining that. And even Obama, when he gets asked, goes into cliché mode. 'Oh, I think the owners and players are sufficiently capable of dividing up $9 billion.' He contributes nothing to what's going on. In fact, he obscures it."

In the end, when the owners and players went into hurry-up mode to get the full 2011 season in, both sides had to lose things they desperately wanted: The NFL had to vacate HGH testing and the 18-game schedule, while the NFL Players Association lost a more objective discipline process -- and we've seen that bear fruit in everything from BountyGate to the current rash of Adderall suspensions.

Were it not for Marvin Miller, we wouldn't even be arguing over such things. Players would still be chattel without his enormous vision, and his amazing ability to tear through the rhetoric and accomplish that which others deemed impossible ... or unimaginable. Players might be more well-organized chattel, but there's no way they'd have the professional and financial equality they do were it not for him.

Players and management still have a long road to travel in our sport of football before things are truly settled. But without Marvin Miller, there wouldn't even be a road. That is his undying legacy, and every player who cashes a check for playing any sport owes him a debt of gratitude.

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