Baseball is back in season, even though Opening Day is not until Tuesday in San Francisco. (Go Giants!) Nevertheless, as America’s past time gears up, I thought it was appropriate to reprise this post from 2017. The freelance world does not know how much it owes to baseball, or more specifically to Curt Flood, an athlete who, in his own way, helped make the gig economy possible.
Curtis Charles Flood played 15 years in major league baseball from 1956-1971, playing for the Cincinnati Reds ( or Redlegs, as they were known at the time) the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Senators. He had a solid career, with three all star team appearances and seven golden glove awards. He won two different hitting titles and still today is ranked third behind Willie Mays ( a Giant , of course) and Richie Ashburn for most games played in center field. However, his impact is not what he did on the field. rather it was what he refused to do off the field, namely accept employment terms that no longer seemed appropriate to him.
Before 1969, players were bound by the reserve clause in baseball, which made players beholden to the first team with whom they signed. The had no say about their futures once the contracts were signed. Team management could make the decision to trade or release a player without so much as a “how do you do” to the athlete.
When the team wanted to trade him after 12 years to Philadelphia, Flood refused, saying,“I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold.”
Floods case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and due to the fact that Justice Powell had to recuse himself because of his ties to the Busch family, the owners of the Cardinals, he did not win. However his action and the attention it garnered paved the way for change and ultimately led to free agency in baseball.
So what does this have to do with the gig economy?
What Flood wanted was control over his professional life. After all that time in the league, he felt he was owed that. Various studies have shown that when professionals decide to start consulting independently it is for that same motive — control over their life. MBO Partners 2016 State of Independence in America Report says that over 60% of consultants cited control of their time as a key factor in going out on their own. Similarly, the McKinsey Global Institute’s recent report entitled Independent Work: Choice Necessity and the Gig Economy noted that the independent workforce is larger than previously thought and that most participants choose independent work for its flexibility and autonomy.
What Flood did, by challenging the reserve clause, was to create a new notion of how employment relationships can work, a mental model that could be extrapolated to other businesses. Many people may only think about the free agency in sports, but it has its analogues in all sorts of other professional fields now as well. In fact, in the aforementioned McKinsey report, they cite different categories of gig workers, and the high end consultants who pursue the independent work option by choice are dubbed in the study as free agents. So thank you Curtis Flood for making your stand so that you could get the gig you wanted. The gig economy is in your debt.