Free Agency in the NFL – What is It? And…Why is It Important?

Russell S. Baxter

Free Agency in the NFL – What is It? And…Why is It Important?

By Jodi Woodruff

Special to Pro Football Guru

Free agency in the NFL – What is it? And…Why is it important?

Free agency is a specific term of art in the NFL and in all pro sports. What it means is the ability to market your services to the highest bidder, absent a contract with a particular team.

That sounds odd, and you might be thinking, “why is that special?”. It should just be that way – right. One would think that, but it is not. In the NFL, like other professional sports, a player is not free to market his services to the highest bidder, absent a contract.

He is, what is called, “a Restricted Free Agent”. A Restricted Free Agent (or “RFA”) means a player is locked into a certain team for a number of years, even absent a contract with that team. This is the current state of the NFL.

For four seasons, according to the CBA, or “Collective Bargaining Agreement”, a player must remain with the team that drafted him until that team releases him.

He is, in other words, a “Restricted Free Agent”. He cannot market his services to the highest bidder, even though he might not have a contract with his current team. His is bound to his team via a collective bargaining agreement and must play only for that team for a period of four seasons.

That is the free agency issue. Players want the ability to market themselves to the highest bidder. A player will tell you it’s about dignity, and freedom. But, I will tell you, it is about money. A player loses over $8 million a year to player restrictions. Considering the average life span of a pro. NFL player is only 3.3 years, that is a lot to lose for an average player. It is why the rate of pay average per player is so low ($2.75 million per year in the NFL for an average player’s salary). It is the lowest of all the major leagues. (Some are has high as $5.5 million per year.)

So, it is definitely about the money, or a lack thereof.

The NFL will argue that the teams need player movement restrictions to maintain competitive balance within the League’s. The NFL needs a balance of teams winning to keep the audience entertained. If one team won all the time, the game would be boring and the NFL would lose fans. The League argues player movement restrictions force players to stay at their current team, which helps maintain the competitive balance and the continuity within the League.

But, if you look at the last fifty years of Super Bowl victories, you will find that this is not the case. Fewer teams won Super Bowls in the 1970’s – 1990’s then in a world with partial free agency (The late 1990’s and beyond). So this fact proves that the League does not gain any “competitive balance” from player movement restrictions.

So what is the true reason for these restrictions, if not competitive balance? Money, pure and simple. The teams have proven over and over again, that money is the sole reason for player movement restrictions.

First, there is no increased parity with movement restrictions, like the NFL has argued. Second, when given the chance for free agency, the players have not all “flocked to the big market teams” as the NFL predicted they would do.

They have voluntarily stayed with their current team. But what has happened is the NFL teams have let free agents go, or have traded them for new players. And that is because of money. The NFL is only motivated by greed in restricting a player’s movement within the NFL. Greed and the NFL is motivated by the power that comes from the right to suppress.

The facts prove nothing good has come out of the free agency restrictions. Teams are not enhanced and competitive balance is not maintained. But, teams have saved substantial dollars by suppressing the player’s freedom.

This is not a good enough reason in antitrust laws to justify the restraints on trade that arise from these player movement restrictions. Antitrust laws forbid contracts or agreements that lessen competition in the market for goods and services. Clearly, player movement restriction agreements between teams do just that.

But the NFL has argued that competitive balance motivates them. That this, competitive balance is a legitimate business concern which justifies these restrictions.

Through time, and statistics, that argument has now been proven to be false. So the next time the this issue comes to fruition – the 2021 renegotiation of the Union/Management collective bargaining agreement – look for a protracted battle posed by the Union for equality for the players. According to reports by the NFLPA, this will happen.

When it does, look for victory on the part of the players for total free agency. The day may finally come, where this archaic system becomes a story of trivia, history, and the past. Then, you will not have to know what the difference is between “free agency” and not.

Jodi Woodruff is the author of “Free Agency in Pro Football: The Concise Legal History of the Free Agency Issue in Professional Football.” Shehas over five years of specific history analyzing the free agency movement within the NFL. She has a J.D. in Law from the University of Cincinnati, College of Law. She also has over seven years of technical labor relations and antitrust employment history. She can be reached at the above web site, for more information about her, her book, or free agency in the NFL. For more information on the NFL free agency movement, visit


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