How Mackey vs NFL Helped Free Agency

The case of Mackey v NFL was one of the most important factors in creating the modern free agency rules in NFL football.

This article explains who John Mackey was, and how his lawsuit would influence professional sports so profoundly.

Who Was John Mackey?

John Mackey, number 88, was a star tight end in the NFL.

He’s most famous for revolutionizing the tight end position. Before Mackey, tight ends were viewed as extra offensive linemen who were eligible to catch an occasional short pass.

But John Mackey had blazing speed and sure hands. He became a major pass-catching threat and a perennial all-pro.

Mackey was drafted by the Baltimore Colts and was a star there for 9 years.

After the AFL-NFL merger, he was also the first president of the NFL Players Association.

During his career, he was a major star and a Hall of Famer.

Sadly, he is also the namesake for the “88 Plan”, a system set up by the NFL to help former players who need to go into care for medical reasons.

What were Mackey’s trading difficulties?

In 1972, Mackey lost his starting position with the Colts. Mackey requested to be traded.

But Instead of trading him, the Colts put him on the retired list. This move was generally believed to be payback for his union activities.

He did finally sign with the Chargers and played one more year.

Free Agency In Mackey’s Time

NFL free agency in the late 60s and early 70s was governed by something called the Rozelle Rule.

We have an article that explains the impact of the Rozelle Rule in depth.

I’ll summarize here by saying that it made it very difficult for a player to become a free agent after his contract ended.

The system allowed Commissioner Rozelle to impose “compensations” for the original team that was more like punishments for any team that dared sign a free agent.

A small number of players began to make legal challenges to the system. One such player was Patriots quarterback Joe Kapp.

His case preceded that of Mackey’s. Let’s take a quick look at it.

Kapp v. NFL

The year before Mackey’s departure to the Chargers, Joe Kapp refused to sign the standard NFL contract that subjected him to the Rozelle Rule.

He was promptly released and never played again.

Kapp filed a Federal Lawsuit in the Northern District of California in 1971.

He argued that the standard NFL contract was a restraint of trade because it limited his ability to negotiate with other teams.

The trial court found for Kapp. In its decision, it stated that the “Rule Of Reason” was the proper view for deciding whether a sports league was a violation of antitrust laws.

That may seem like a major victory. But unfortunately for Kapp, the Court determined that he suffered no damage from the violation and awarded him nothing.

The case ended there. 

Mackey v. NFL

After a knee injury forced his retirement, Mackey started a federal lawsuit in the District of Minnesota that was joined by several other players.

Mackey v. NFL dealt specifically and exclusively with the Rozelle Rule. The players had two requests.

Firstly, they wanted an injunction halting the use of the Rozelle rule immediately.

Secondly, they wanted money damages for past use of the Rozelle Rule.

Players arguments

The players argued that the Rozelle Rule was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. This federal law prohibits attempts to reduce competition and prevent monopolistic practices.

In this case, the players were arguing that the Rozelle Rule was an illegal conspiracy to restrain trade by preventing players from having unlimited ability to sell their skills on the open market.

NFL defenses

The NFL had two defenses.

They argued that their actions were not subject to antitrust laws because the Rozelle Rule was part of the collectively bargained contract between the players and the League.

The other argument was a little more complicated. It was based on the difference between two ways of reviewing an antitrust violation: “per se” and “rule of reason”.

Let’s look at these two standards.

Per Se Versus Rule Of Reason

An action that’s a per se violation under the Sherman Act is one that’s a violation whether it’s reasonable or not.

Acts that have been repeatedly found to have a restraining effect on trade are put into this class.

Example of a per se violation

A classic example is price-fixing.

If all the booksellers in an area agree to set prices, this reduces competition even if the prices are reasonable.

Therefore, the agreement is a per se antitrust violation.

What about “Rule of Reason”?

If an action doesn’t fall into one of the per se categories, the courts can now review it to see if it’s reasonable in light of the particular circumstances of the individual case and industry.

Using Rule of Reason, the courts look at whether the actions of the NFL were justified by legitimate business purposes, and were no more restrictive than necessary.  

Footballers Win!

At the Trial Court level, the Court found for the Plaintiffs i.e. Mackey and the other players.

The Court said that the rule was a per se violation. It further said that even if it wasn’t, the NFL’s actions weren’t reasonable either.

The Court referred to the Rozelle rule as a “concerted refusal to deal and a group boycott”. This put it squarely in the per se category.

The Court also rejected the NFL’s collective bargaining argument. It stated that the Rozelle Rule wasn’t the result of collective bargaining.

The NFL promptly appealed to the Circuit Court.

NFL Fights Back: The Appeal

At the Circuit Court, both sides made essentially the same arguments on appeal as they did at the trial level.

The Court again rejected the NFL’s collective bargaining argument.

It said that there was substantial evidence that the Rozelle Rule wasn’t the result of “arms-length” negotiation between players and management.

Kicking “per se” off the playing field

However, the Court did agree with the NFL that the per se standard was inappropriate.

The Court stated that the nature of the NFL made it different from standard businesses.

Why was the NFL different from standard business? The Court pointed out that the NFL teams are not really in competition with each other in a business sense.

It’s in each team’s best interest to see the others succeed. If any single team went out of business, this would impact the rest negatively. That is not normal competition.

The Court therefore found that “per se” couldn’t be applied.  

Enter the Rule Of Reason

However, all was not lost for the players.

The Court decided that a Rule Of Reason review be conducted. And this review found that the Rozell Rule failed.

The NFL’s claim that it needed to recoup its player development costs wasn’t credible in the eyes of the Court.

Other businesses had to train workers but that didn’t mean that they could hold them for their entire working lives, against their will.

The Court also said that the lack of continuity caused by player movement wouldn’t hurt the League’s need for parity. This was because it would impact all teams equally.

Final decision

The Court said that the NFL was being too restrictive in its aims to establish team parity.

In our article on the Rozelle Rule, we explained that part of the aim was to stop all the star players from migrating to one club.

The Court found that although this was a legitimate business goal, the implementation was too restrictive. The rule didn’t just apply to stars, whose movement may change competitive balance. It also applied to journeymen who would not.

The rule was of unlimited duration and had absolutely no procedural safeguards to limit abuse. Further, the player had no input in the process whatsoever.

Based on all this, the Circuit Court found the Rozelle Rule in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Short And Long-term Impact of Mackey v NFL

In 1977 the NFL negotiated a new agreement with the players regarding free agency.

Now, when a free agent player was signed by a new team, there was a predetermined compensation for his old team.

Apart from that, nothing really changed for the players at that time.

The immediate impact of the case could have been much bigger. But many believe that the NFLPA (the players’ association) bargained away the advantage Mackey had won them by agreeing to the 1977 free agency rules.

Nonetheless, the Mackey case had set an important precedent. The courts had found that the NFL labor actions were subject to scrutiny under the Sherman Act.

This would be crucial in the free agency fights that were to come.