On Curt Flood: Credit or Blame?

From HBO documentary to forthcoming book by USF assistant professor, the late baseball star draws attention as the Father of Free Agency in Sports.

 

 

By Barbara Melendez

     USF News

 

TAMPA, Fla. (July 14, 2011) – When HBO showed The Curious Case of Curt Flood Wednesday night, one viewer who considers himself one of the foremost experts on the late baseball player was paying close attention with an especially critical eye.

 

University of South Florida Assistant Professor Abraham Khan has a lot to say about the center fielder's life and significance in his forthcoming book, Curt Flood in the Media: Baseball, Race, and the Demise of the Activist Athlete. He was curious to see what the new documentary has to say about the man who changed baseball forever in groundbreaking ways. See his review in the sidebar.

 

Television and sports commentators have noted the timing. Current labor struggles in Major League Baseball, the NBA and NFL over free agency issues bring to mind Flood’s role as the pioneer in the effort of athletes to control their careers. Flood gets either credit or blame – depending on one’s point of view – for today’s athletes’ high salaries and extravagant contracts.  

 

The book, which will be published by the University Press of Mississippi, is slated to come out next February at the start of next year’s Major League Baseball season. Khan’s analysis covers “the way that newspaper coverage of Flood (occurred) in both the black press and the nation's daily newspapers.  And it sheds light on what many today call the demise of the activist athlete,” he said. “I imagine the documentary will ask everyone to remember Curt Flood’s sacrifice and thank him, but we must also ask, exactly what are we thanking him for?”

 

Khan’s book looks at the internal contradictions within our civic culture produced for athletes by winning the battle for their freedom. He suggests Flood is responsible for helping to create the “damaging allure of sports for young African American males. They all want to aspire to ESPN not the dean’s list,” he said.  

 

“If wealth and celebrity are responsible for robbing our athletes of their incentive to say politically risky things, then calling Curt Flood a heroic pioneer is downright ironic. The question is, what about Curt Flood’s sacrifice are we supposed to remember as heroic? My book suggests that we look for answers not in the deeds of one man, but in the cultural atmosphere that celebrates athletes to begin with.”

 

Now that athletes don’t want to end up like Flood by rocking the boat – except to ask for more money – Khan laments the passing of the “golden era” when the Arthur Ashes and Muhammad Alis of the world spoke out about issues involving sports and society. But on the positive side he is seeing signs of growth.  Some sports figures are becoming models of philanthropy and taking a stand against homophobic behavior.

 

“You’ll find more athletes speaking out in favor of gay marriage, for example,” Khan said. “It’s surprising because this is risky – probably less risky than it would have been in the past, but relatively so.” 


The path to Flood, for Khan, who has joint appointments in the Departments of Communications and Africana Studies, began as a doctoral student. He developed an interest in scientific racism. An article he was assigned to read about another sports figure paved the way. 

 

“It was about Hank Aaron where he was quoted as saying, ‘We’re out of the back of the bus, but we have a long way to go.’ I was intrigued by this.”

 

Khan sees sports as something of a “cultural back of the bus,” fraught with cultural assumptions. 

 

“Entertainment and sports are socially acceptable as proscribed places for Black people. ‘Sports’ is its own back of the bus,” he said. “His comment got me to think about this in the ways superiority in sports is used to try to demonstrate and justify Black mental and intellectual inferiority. From there I found my way to Flood’s book, The Way It Is. The book is brilliant and poetic and quickly became the subject of an expansive project.” 

 

That project was his dissertation, now reconfigured into a book for popular consumption.

 

In looking at Flood Khan found, “What he did was to professionalize sports. Prior to 1970, athletes weren’t taken quite as seriously and it was in part his personality that changed things. He always wore a business suit, gold cufflinks and associated with a circle of prominent socialites. He offered the public and the media a very different persona in a way that respected the intellectual capacity of athletes and particularly African American athletes.”

 

Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season under the reserve clause in the days before free agents. He refused to report to his new team – an unheard of move – and made history. 

 

Funded by the Major League Baseball Players Association, his case challenged the right of team owners to own their players, either trading them or selling them for cash. Flood likened this practice to being treated like a “well-paid slave.” The controversial comment generated one of the most challenging aspects of the free agency struggle for him. Khan points to the political and social context of the times to understand why. 

 

“It was a time of social unrest, Muhammad Ali refused to go into the Army, there was the Olympic Games ‘black power’ gloved fist in the air protest, the shock of having five Black basketball players in a championship college game (Texas Western v. University of Kentucky).

 

“He found himself caught between two Black political styles – the ‘old guard’ civil rights establishment and the more confrontational activists. But once he referred to himself as a ‘slave,’ he was automatically seen by some as too forward and too confrontational. It also took a matter that affected all players and made it a racial matter, complicating things in many ways.”

 

How did this play in the media? Interestingly, today it is believed that the mainstream press played a role in vilifying Flood and destroying his career, but Khan says that wasn’t the case. In researching what was written about him in the two leading outlets, The New York Times and the Sporting News – television and radio commentary being nothing like they are today – he found support for Flood. 

 

“The common belief is that the news media pandered to the team owners and did their bidding, but instead I found he was treated as a righteous figure setting out to undo management’s monopoly of the players, not ringing endorsements necessarily, but pretty fair assessments,” Khan said. “Meanwhile, the Black press, like the Chicago Defender and the Amsterdam News, which were universally supportive, treated Flood favorably, pretty much as one might expect.”    

 

Flood invoked U.S. antitrust laws and the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude and fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, represented by former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. With an aging Jackie Robinson and a few other retired ballplayers in the courtroom and not one active player in attendance, he lost there, but the notion of free agency could not be denied and in 1975 the reserve clause was finally thrown out.

 

His career in baseball over, Flood didn’t die a pauper, but certainly not as wealthy as he might have been. A bout with alcoholism and heavy smoking took their toll and he died of throat cancer in 1997 at the age of 59.

 

“He never matched the wealth he attained as an athlete,” Khan said. “He became a brooding, tragic figure, estranged from the children from his first marriage and nearly broke, he retreated to Europe to avoid the difficult reality his life had become. His marriage to the actress Judy Pace seems to have rejuvenated his life and she is now his greatest advocate, making the rounds in the news media promoting the HBO program.”

 

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Florida State University, Khan went on to earn a master’s in communication there and then a doctorate in communication from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

 

A self-proclaimed “sports nut,” he admits his obsession might be a way of overcompensating for not playing any one particular sport well. He first became aware of sports around the age of nine. He says he can spout any number of useless statistics but is most proud of being able to name all the starters and their jersey numbers from the 1985 Chicago Bears team, “the greatest football team ever” – something he learned at the age of 11 in his home town of Chicago.  

 

Khan dislikes the sanctimoniousness of typical sports media reporting and is not afraid of tackling sports’ shibboleths and sacred cows. If anything, the philosophy major turned communication scholar relishes challenging commonly held beliefs. His next project will take on Jackie Robinson, a beloved sports icon if ever there was one. Without taking anything away from Robinson’s achievements, courage and indisputable role as a “virtuous civic figure,” Khan wants to go deeper. 

 

“Every book on Jackie Robinson is either a biography about him or includes him in the biography of baseball, particularly his first season. I’m looking at him not as an historical figure but rather as Jackie Robinson the symbol, as a trope of progress.”

 

This work and a forthcoming essay he’s writing with a colleague from Baylor University on the public disagreement between Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X in 1962 both take issue with Robinson as a political figure.

 

“Ultimately, I’m looking to figure out where our conversation about racial justice has taken us, where it is taking us, and how sports has figured into those paths.”  

 

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563