HBO documentary highlights free-agency pioneer Curt Flood

Free agency and players controlling their own careers seems like a given in today’s professional sports landscape. But there was a time not so long ago when the notion of a player refusing to be traded was anathema to conventional wisdom. Simply put, there was labor relations in professional sports before Curt Flood, and after Curt Flood.

The player who challenged the system, using such charged words as “slave” and “master” when describing the relationship between players and owners is the subject of a documentary airing on HBO tonight. The Curious Case of Curt Flood explores the life of a baseball player who didn’t have the stats of Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, but his influence is in many ways just as powerful.

The film crystallizes a story that has become hazy to many these days, and brings to prominence a man who fought for his professional independence knowing it probably meant the end of his career. He did so without the support of his fellow players, many of whom privately wished him success but were unwilling to endanger their own careers.

Labor strife has inconvenienced many fans over the years, causing work stoppages in all professional sports, with the NFL and NBA currently trying to save their upcoming seasons. But while we lament the current situation of millionaires quabbling with billionaires, it’s important to remember a time when the player was simply an employee who wasn’t paid all that well and had few of the rights many today take for granted.

The Curious Case of Curt Flood airs tonight at 9 on HBO.