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John Kerr, as a Scotland native should, savors no sport so much as soccer. But these days, the athlete Kerr regards as most heroic is Curt Flood, a guy to whom “the pitch” never meant the playing field.
Kerr, an Annandale resident, is the executive director of the brand-new Major League Soccer Players Association, a group representing the talent pool of the one-year-old MLS. His first act as MLSPA’s top administrator was to file a class-action lawsuit against the league alleging egregious violations of federal antitrust law. If the suit is successful, Kerr says, his constituents will win only what players in better established big-time U.S. sports have had for years: free agency.
In preparing the case, Kerr thought a lot about Flood, who died rather anonymously in January. Almost three decades earlier, Flood quit baseball after the St. Louis Cardinals tried trading him to the Philadelphia Phillies, saying he didn’t want to be a part of a system that didn’t give players any say-so in where or for whom they play.
Pro soccer, of course, is not baseball, and Kerr knows that better than most: Back in 1967, not long after he migrated to the U.S., Kerr signed with the Detroit Cougars in the North American Soccer League’s first year.
“The first home game that team ever played drew maybe 25,000 people to Tiger Stadium,” Kerr recalls, burr intact. “But the next time we played there, nobody showed up. Nobody! I remember walking out on the field in front of all those empty seats and thinking to myself, ‘Uh-oh! Maybe this game won’t last too long here.’”
The NASL did last another 15 years, however, and Kerr kicked around the league through the ’70s, including stints with both the Washington Diplomats and Darts. When the NASL did fold, its demise was attributed to the great disparity in wealth that existed among the various franchise ownersbasically, the New York Cosmos were haves, and the rest of the league were have-nots.
MLS officials often cited the Cosmos when they installed their unusual ownership setup. Under the MLS scheme, the league is the owner of record of all 10 teams, with locally based “investor-operators” in charge in the various markets. D.C. United, for example, is backed by a group headed up by the well-endowed George Soros, but owned by MLS.
The one-for-all strategy allowed MLS officialsat least to their way of thinkingto parcel out human resources any way they saw fit. Players submitted a list of the four cities they’d most like to play in, and if one of those selections coincided with the league’s marketing plan, maybe their request would be honored. For example, it was market research, not coincidence, that brought Bolivian and El Salvadoran stars, along with former University of Virginia standouts, to D.C. United.
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After the inaugural MLS season in 1996, coaches were free to move to other teams, and some did: Tomas Rongen, who roamed the sidelines for the Tampa Bay Mutiny last year, signed with the New England Revolution during the off-season, and reportedly will make several times his 1996 salary as a result of the move.
MLS players, however, have no such freedom. As long as the league wants John Harkes to stay in D.C., for example, his only options are to either play for the United or go back across the pond. Which is why the MLSPA filed suit against the league and the individual investor-owners last week in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Boston.
“It’s absurd and even embarrassing that we have to deal with this issue at this time, after what Curt Flood went through, and after what so many other athletes went through just to get those rights,” Kerr says. “This new league comes out with what they call a ‘new vision’ for the future, yet they try to hit the players with the same type of restrictions that sports owners put on players 100 years ago.”
Legal precedent favors the plaintiffsthat is, if you’re asking the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“Let me put it this way: There’s never been a pro sports league in the U.S. that has ever successfully fought a free-agency case that’s been decided,” chuckles Jeffrey Kessler, the New York lawyer representing the MLS players. “It’s never happened. And here we have a soccer league putting in all these restrictions that have already been declared illegal, only they’re disguising it under a new name.”
MLS doesn’t believe that history is arrayed against it. After the suit was filed, Commissioner Doug Logan said, “We would have been foolish not to investigate the legality and propriety of our way of managing this enterprise.”
History has inarguably shown that portability adds value to an athlete’s worth. The Bullets’ “final” offer to Juwan Howard miraculously increased by about $35 million after he had a cup of coffee in a Miami Heat uniform. And in the very week the MLSPA filed its suit, sports wires teemed with other tales of what the freedom to roam has done for jocks’ wallets. Sean Gilbert declared that the $2.79-million annual salary offered him by the Redskins was “an insult” and that he would retire before playing for that wage. Then Mike Mussina agreed to a $6.8-million, one-year contract with Baltimore, but after signing that deal hinted he’ll walk away from the O’s after the upcoming season to penalize the team for not giving him a more lucrative, lengthier pact.
The entire D.C. United payroll is a fraction of either Mussina’s or Gilbert’s take-home pay. According to David Scott Vaudreuil, a defender on the defending MLS champs and the team’s MLSPA representative, “a majority” of the United players have contracts of less than $30,000 per year.
If MLSPA members are ever going to bring in big bucks, the financial success of the league is infinitely more important than the plaintiffs’ winning their current suit. So although he’s quick to criticize MLS over the lack of employee rights, Kerr just as quickly maintains that he wouldn’t back any suit he thought would harm the league’s chances for prosperity. He’s also protective of the strides he and other NASL alumni made in mainstreaming the game here.
“I remember when American kids either had no idea what soccer was or thought that soccer was something you ate,” he says. “But now, you’ve got Clinton and Dole beating the heck out of each other to win the votes of ‘soccer moms.’ You don’t know how good that makes me feel. I know the game will prosper here now, no matter how this suit turns out. We just want the slaves freed.”Dave McKenna