Cal. Litig. 2021, Volume 34, Number 3

Flood v. Kuhn: Paving the Way for Athletic Bargaining and Free Markets

By Phillip E. Stephan

Phillip E. Stephan practices in the San Diego office of Klinedinst PC, in the firm’s Professional Liability, Employment, and Business and Commercial Litigation practice groups. While attending law school, Mr. Stephan worked as the extern for Legal Affairs and Risk Management for the Los Angeles Angels baseball club in Anaheim.

This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Flood v. Kuhn (1972) 407 U.S. 258 (Flood). Plenty has been written about the case. It was the beginning of the end of Major League Baseball’s notorious "reserve clause." Today, whether you’re a baseball fan or not, the case, and its courageous plaintiff, Curt Flood, merit attention from lawyers, judges, and anyone who cares about justice.

For decades, baseball club owners wrote the reserve clause into the contract of every player they employed. The clause bound players to the clubs with which they first signed, for the rest of their playing days. Players could not escape from their clubs except by retiring or sitting out without pay. Nor could they veto trades. The reserve clause amounted to an almost-medieval perpetual contract. Club owners justified the reserve clause by arguing it prevented bidding wars from wrecking baseball financially and heightened fan interest. No player dared argue, for fear of losing his career and livelihood.

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