By Ridge Mahoney
Is "greater freedom of movement" the same as "free agency?"
I would say not, but judging by the spin spun by MLS and subsequent coverage of this critical facet of CBA negotiations, these terms are one and the same. MLS did an excellent job of equating the two, and perhaps for this reason much criticism has been aimed at the players for “caving in,” whereas a more accurate portrayal might be the players “took what they could get.”
Early in the process, player representatives told me one of their sticking points was the lack of leverage for players who were out of contract, had their options declined, or had been waived. None of them stumped for “free agency,” i.e., the unfettered right to bargain and negotiate with all MLS teams, as would be the case if they headed overseas. But that is exactly what league president Mark Abbott implied in February, tossing every player not under contract into a free-agency hopper.
While true free agency exists in American pro sports, it isn’t universal nor automatic. A baseball player is subject to the arbitration process for several years until he hits the six-season benchmark of free agency. The NHL classifies players as restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents; the NFL uses the same terms, and also has categories of “transition” and “franchise” players. Those leagues, however, are not single-entity leagues, and so comparisons to them are in many cases irrelevant.
For restricted free agents, in some cases the player’s current team has a right of first refusal if it is willing to match or come close to the offer tendered by another team, and is entitled to a draft pick if it loses the player. This isn’t all that different than how MLS mechanisms have worked, and may do in the future depending on how a special draft is organized and implemented for those players.
There is no unrestricted free agency in MLS, but the underpinnings of single-entity, by definition, exclude open bidding for players. When Abbott contended that unfettered free agency could yield successful legal challenges to the league’s single-entity status, he spoke the truth.
Of course, the league didn’t publicly offer up any juicy alternatives; it used the negotiation and bargaining sessions to grind out a compromise with the players’ union. One “rule” of negotiation is not to offer anything you know the other side will jump at; instead, you inch in that direction, yielding ground grudgingly, bit by bit, giving away as little as possible until agreement, forged by exhaustion as much as effort, is reached.
Considering how far apart the two sides were when talks broke off Tuesday, it’s astonishing that even marathon sessions created a deal by early Saturday, since there were five or six core issues that, due to their interdependence on each other, had to be evaluated collectively as well as separately. But on each major issue, the sides kept talking and haggling and discussing; by late Thursday, both sides had gained enough ground to believe a deal was imminent, and to push through frustration and mounting fatigue to reach the summit.
Players who leave MLS after their contracts expire to play overseas and then return to the league are no better off. It seems ludicrous for their last MLS team to retain their rights, but again, the single-entity structure doesn’t provide a lot of wiggle room. Players whose contracts expire or are terminated at the end of a season are simpler to deal with, via a single draft, then players who might arrive at different times during the MLS season. A weighted lottery could be used, as MLS has done for certain players in the past, but the players agreed to leave things as they are this time around.
If a player has gone overseas on trial and his return isn’t certain, a team can still claim his rights, as occurs in the SuperDraft. And as executive committee member Pat Onstad pointed out, very few players each season come back to MLS from overseas. Many more are affected by being out of contract, terminated (option declined), or waived, and wanted more security in the form of guaranteed contracts.
For those players, the union got what it came for.