Joe Kapp's Lawsuit Paved the Way for N.F.L. Free Agency

Joe Kapp's Lawsuit Paved the Way for N.F.L. Free Agency

In July 1971, at the beginning of the New England Patriots training camp, Joe Kapp was locked up in an office along with Upton Bell and Billy Sullivan.

Kapp already had a three-year contract worth around $500,000, which began in the previous season. Kapp only had to sign the standard contract for players used by the entire league in place of the'memorandum agreement' he signed originally. Kapp refused to sign the standard player contract, claiming that it would limit his ability to move on from his club when his three-year agreement expired.

Sullivan begged Kapp, in front of the assembled media, to sign for another 20 minutes. Kapp stood firm.

Bell said that he only had to sign the contract in order to continue to claim the N.F.L. Bell stated that it was a monopoly but he had thrown it away. It was just like the gunfight in the O.K. Corral.'

Sullivan finally gave up, and escorted Kapp out of the building, with steely eyes and a resolute disposition. Kapp's luggage was even carried by Sullivan. Kapp was never a N.F.L. player again. The Patriots lost their quarterback and Kapp never played in the N.F.L.

But Kapp, 85 years old, died this week, he fought. He sued the N.F.L. He sued the N.F.L. for violating antitrust law protecting players' rights. He did not receive any financial damages but his case set a precedent for full free agent, which was won by the players two decades later. This replaced the modified free agent that required teams be compensated for losing players.

Jeffrey Kessler said that the N.F.L. was helped by one of its lawyers, Jeffrey Kessler. In 1992, players won a case naming running back Freeman McNeil that led to full free agency.

Kessler stated that he heavily relied on the Kapp ruling and precedents established in previous cases brought by Jim Smith, and John Mackey. Smith, also known as Yazoo won a 1970 lawsuit he filed against the N.F.L. The 1977 collective bargaining agreement of the Players Association included a draft sanction. Mackey's lawsuit in 1975 successfully challenged the Rozelle Rule, which required teams signing free agents to compensate their former clubs. This rule unfairly limited a player’s freedom to choose a new team.

The most interesting of the three cases was Kapp's. Kapp, a rugged quarterback from Cal that was not afraid to run headfirst into defenders was selected by Washington in the 18th draft round of 1959. He was never contacted by the team, and so Kapp played in the Canadian Football League for eight years.

Kapp was a Vikings' veteran in his third season. He led them to Super Bowl IV where they lost against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Kapp, whose three-year contract with Minnesota was over, turned down the new three-year, 100,000-per-year offer from Minnesota. The Vikings let Kapp go after learning of his injuries and inconsistency with passing.

Joe Horrigan said that Joe Kapp was not the prettiest of passers, but he had a strong voice in the locker rooms. The truth is, Joe Kapp was nearing the end of his football career. He was held together by chewing gum, staples and tape.

Kapp signed a personal services contract that paid him about $500,000 and was a less restrictive bridge between the Vikings and Patriots deals, Horrigan said. Horrigan says Kapp signed a contract for personal services that paid him around $500,000, and served as a bridge between Vikings and Patriots transactions.

The league had asked Sullivan for Kapp to sign a contract standard, but the Patriots' owner refused to do so. Sullivan fell in love with Kapp despite his 2-12 record as a quarterback after the trade.

Kapp refused to sign the standard contract on John Elliot Cook's advice. He was his agent and lawyer. Without one, he had to leave the training camp during summer 1971. This led to the final and ill-fated encounter in Bell's offices.

The first federal judge to hear Kapp's case in Northern California found the draft and Rozelle rule to be 'patently illegal and unreasonable'. In a later case, a jury found that Kapp was not entitled to damages from either the Patriots or N.F.L. This resulted in something of a Pyrrhic win.

In this case, the lawyer who defended the league was future N.F.L. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Michael LeRoy teaches sports labor laws at the University of Illinois. He said that the ruling was still a win for the players because at the time, both the union and league were battling to define the vague boundary between antitrust and collective bargaining.

He said that the Kapp case 'helped to define what anticompetitive practices leagues could impose'

The players' union had to fight for free agency over two decades, and it took many more battles. This was partly due to the costs of defending the appeals made by Kapp and other plaintiffs. The players' union, however, had already built up a war fund with the money they earned by selling their licensing rights. They spent about $25 million in the 1990s to fight two important lawsuits that led to free agency.

Doug Allen, former N.F.L. player, said: 'He was a pioneer and showed everyone the right way. We owe him a great debt, but he showed us also what not to do when it comes to legal strategy.' From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Allen was a player who worked with the Players' Union. 'Kapp was unable to appeal his case because he ran out of money. The lesson is not 'don’t sue the N.F.L.' but rather 'don’t do it on your own'.

Kapp's risky stand is similar to that of Curt Flood who challenged Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption. Kapp never received compensation for his work and he was never able to play another down in the N.F.L. But, his efforts weren't unnoticed.

Kessler stated that 'He had instilled this fight in his players'.