Joe Kapp’s Lawsuit Paved the Way for NFL Free Agency

It was one in all the most surreal contract negotiations in NFL historical past. At the begin of coaching camp in July 1971, Joe Kapp, the New England Patriots’ star quarterback, was locked in an workplace with Upton Bell, the workforce’s new common supervisor, and Billy Sullivan, its principal proprietor.

Kapp had already agreed to a three-year deal price about $500,000 that started the earlier season. All Sullivan wanted was for Kapp to signal the customary participant contract used all through the league to exchange the “memorandum of settlement” he had initially signed. Kapp refused, saying the customary contract restricted his choices for shifting to a different membership as soon as his three-year deal expired.

With the media assembled exterior, Sullivan pleaded with Kapp to signal for 20 minutes. Kapp stood agency.

“All he needed to do was signal the contract and he might nonetheless say the NFL is a monopoly, however he threw it away,” Bell mentioned. “It was like the gunfight at the OK Corral.”

Sullivan gave up and escorted Kapp, steely-eyed and resolute, out of the constructing. He even carried Kapp’s luggage. The Patriots misplaced their quarterback and Kapp by no means performed in the NFL once more, forfeiting tons of of 1000’s of {dollars}.

But Kapp, who died this week at 85, stored combating. He efficiently sued the NFL for violating antitrust legal guidelines defending gamers’ rights. He by no means obtained any monetary damages, however the authorized precedent in his case paved the approach for full free company, which the gamers gained 20 years later, changing the modified free company that required groups to be compensated for the lack of gamers.

“You can hint the final achievement of free company again to Kapp,” mentioned Jeffrey Kessler, one in all the legal professionals who helped the NFL gamers win a case named for operating again Freeman McNeil in 1992 that ushered in full free company.

Kessler mentioned that he relied closely on the Kapp determination and precedents set in earlier instances introduced by Jim Smith and John Mackey. Smith, who glided by the nickname Yazoo, gained a swimsuit he introduced in opposition to the league in 1970, which argued that the NFL draft unreasonably restricted his proper to barter immediately with groups. (The NFL Players Association sanctioned the draft in the 1977 collective bargaining settlement.) Mackey’s 1975 lawsuit efficiently challenged the so-called Rozelle rule, which obligated groups that signed free brokers to compensate these gamers’ former golf equipment, as unfairly limiting a participant’s freedom to discover a new workforce.

While the three instances grew to become ammunition in the gamers’ authorized battles with the NFL, Kapp’s was the most curious. A sturdy quarterback from Cal who was unafraid to cost headfirst into defenders, Kapp was chosen in the 18th spherical of the 1959 draft by the Washington franchise. The workforce by no means contacted him, although, so he went to the Canadian Football League, the place he performed for eight seasons.

In 1967, Kapp joined the Minnesota Vikings, then coached by Bud Grant, one other CFL veteran. In his third season, Kapp led the Vikings to Super Bowl IV, the place they misplaced to the Kansas City Chiefs.

His three-year take care of Minnesota over, Kapp turned down the workforce’s new three-year, $100,000-per-year provide. Aware of Kapp’s accidents and inconsistent passing, the Vikings launched him.

“Joe Kapp wasn’t the prettiest passer, however he was a vocal man in the locker room,” mentioned Joe Horrigan, retired government director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “The reality was, he was at the finish of his profession. He was stored along with chewing gum and staples.”

The Vikings nonetheless managed the rights to Kapp’s providers and, in October 1970, traded him to the woeful Patriots in return for John Charles, a cornerback, and a first-round decide in the 1972 draft. Kapp signed a private providers contract that paid him about $500,000 and was a much less restrictive bridge between the Vikings and Patriots offers, Horrigan mentioned.

The league requested Sullivan to have Kapp signal an ordinary contract, however the Patriots proprietor stored placing it off. Sullivan was smitten with Kapp’s movie star regardless of the quarterback having helped lead the workforce to a 2-12 file after the commerce.

Kapp, underneath the recommendation of John Elliot Cook, his lawyer and agent, refused to signal an ordinary contract and, with out one, needed to go away coaching camp in summer time 1971. That led to the closing, ill-fated assembly in Bell’s workplace.

A federal decide in Northern California who heard Kapp’s first case discovered that the draft and the Rozelle rule have been “patently unreasonable and unlawful.” A jury in a subsequent case discovered that Kapp didn’t deserve damages from the Patriots or the NFL, creating one thing of a Pyrrhic victory.

The lawyer defending the league in the case was future NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Still, the ruling was a victory for the gamers, mentioned Michael LeRoy, who teaches sports activities labor legislation at the University of Illinois, as a result of the union and the league at the time “have been combating to find out the ill-defined boundary between collective bargaining and antitrust. legislation.”

The Kapp case, he mentioned, “helped outline what anti-competitive practices a league might impose.”

It took about two extra a long time and plenty of extra battles for the gamers’ union to win free company, partially due to the value of defending the league’s appeals of the instances introduced by Kapp and others. By the Nineteen Eighties, although, the gamers’ union had constructed up a conflict chest with cash earned from promoting their licensing rights, and it might go on to spend about $25 million to combat two key lawsuits in the late ’80s and early ’90s that led to trendy free company.

“He confirmed everybody the approach and was a trailblazer, and we owed him a debt of gratitude, however he additionally confirmed us what to not do by way of authorized technique,” mentioned Doug Allen, a former NFL participant who helped run the gamers’ union from the ’80s via the early aughts. “Kapp ran out of sources to enchantment his case. The lesson discovered wasn’t ‘do not sue the NFL,’ the lesson was ‘do not do it alone.’”

Like Curt Flood, who challenged Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, Kapp is remembered for his dangerous stance. He obtained no compensation and by no means performed one other down in the NFL, however his efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

“He instilled that combat in the gamers,” Kessler mentioned.

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