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Rich Paul, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) paradigm-shifting agent, and LeBron James’ partner, has had the summer – no, the past two summers – of his professional life. Starting in the summer of 2018 when he was able to negotiate LeBron’s (second) exit from Cleveland Cavaliers or the Los Angeles Lakers. This was a year removed from helping the Cavaliers win their first NBA championship and the city’s first in 53 years. Many sports observers agreed on two things: 1. The move was a sign of LeBron transitioning his professional priorities of championship-based, NBA-only pursuits to a more post-NBA, multi-faceted entrepreneurially-focused career trajectory; and, 2. This momentous move would be a mere ripple in the larger ocean of the NBA’s, and sports overall’s, player free agency process and the agency (read: autonomy) of the players in advocating for their rights, privileges, and preferences. 

We’ve seen both prognostications ring true as LeBron got hurt and focused on recovery for the upcoming season as the Lakers imploded, and that many of the most prominent players in the NBA – Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, & Kemba Walker to name a few – all left or were dealt due to player preferences and leveraging a favorable collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as opposed to reasons of rebuilding or persistent losing like in the past. In addition, other players like Draymond Green & Ben Simmons signed massive contract extensions. Many of these players, at the top and lower tiers, are represented by Rich Paul and his Klutch Sports Group. Under ordinary circumstances, Rich Paul would be lauded as an innovative and successful agent who is a media darling making appearances on ESPN, FOX Sports, NBA TV, and other media outlets similar to his contemporaries in other sports like Scott Boras (MLB) and Drew Rosenhaus (NFL).  

Unfortunately, however, Rich Paul is being made into a poster boy (I say, scapegoat) by the NCAA through a new rule focused on college basketball athletes that prohibits NBA Draft- declared players from signing with agents in an advisory role who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree and still retain their NCAA eligibility. On the surface, the general public (read: white people) would look at this and that it’s a mere HR qualifications formality considering that most agents have an advanced degree(s). However, I, as a sports enthusiast and Black man, look at it completely differently from the NCAA – to me, I see it as a lose-lose for NCAA college basketball athletes (who are primarily low-income and Black), for diversity in a very white male-dominated sector, and for Rich Paul (a Black man who should be an exemplar of utilizing his circumstance – or freedom of – college to become a global influencer in sports & entertainment. And, lost in all of the commentary and punditry on sports television is the blatantly racial undertones of sports & entertainment, amateurism, and what success or the “American Dream” looks like.  

It may be too late to add this disclaimer, but I am: 1. Born and raised in Cleveland like Rich Paul; 2. I feel a personal connection to this issue because I spent my undergraduate and graduate school years tutoring English & History to student-athletes at The Ohio State University and Northwestern University, respectively; and, 3. I have a weird sense of fraternity with Rich Paul who graduated from the same high school (Benedictine) as I did almost a decade before me and we [black] men of Benedictine have a psychic form of camaraderie, like the universal Black man head nod. 

Moreover, the “Rich Paul Rule,” as it has been dubbed, has significant racial components that society and the media have ignored or just ignored or pretended it doesn’t exist. At first glance, I immediately thought of Jim Crow-era poll tax laws such as grandfather clauses and literacy tests, which prohibited and intimidated blacks from exercising their right to enfranchisement. These poll taxes intimidated, not just Blacks but, Native Americans and other minority groups throughout American history as well, and they were executed across the country, not just in the South either. 

Similarly, I thought of restrictive covenants and zoning implemented in the 1950s & 1960s-era American federal, state, and local housing policies. Due to the passage of Civil Rights reforms, integration across numerous sectors of American life was paramount; but, housing policy was and remains one of the most insidious and effective forms of segregation in America. Many governmental agencies like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) zoned or redlined targeted areas of metro cities as unappealing or made for disinvestment due to large volumes of Black residents. These agencies and brokers steered whites away from those areas and pushed them out to new developed communities and lands, or suburbs, which culminated in “white flight” and suburbanization. They also pushed Blacks into these urban, economically-distressed areas and exacerbated generations of disproportional disadvantage and mobility. In addition, at the state and local level, many of these new white suburbs used home rule laws to further restrict zoning and required residents to implement restrictive covenants which were land deeds that detailed the specific exclusion of black and other minorities outright or via unrealistic criteria like the Jim Crow-era poll taxes.  

Lastly, the Rich Paul Rule harkens back to the initial struggles of free agency in sports, how it is rooted in and runs parallel to Black struggles for liberty in America, and how white power structures have fought it tooth-and-nail as a proxy war of liberation for black athletes. I think of the 1972 MLB case of Flood vs. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 where the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-3 thin favor of the MLB’s case against the St. Louis Cardinals’ Curt Flood’s petition that the league’s reserve clause was used in a similar manner to intestate slavery. In the NFL, R.C. Owens left the San Francisco 49ers in 1962 to play for the Baltimore Colts and almost immediately, Commissioner Pete Rozelle created the “Rozelle Rule” which provided compensation to team owners in the form of money or draft picks from the other team, should a player leave via free agency at the Commissioner’s discretion.

In 197, John Mackey sued the NFL and won striking down the “Rozelle Rule” in Mackey vs. NFL, 407 F. Supp. 1000 (1975). As a result, the NFL created “Plan B” free agency which allowed team owners to protect 37 players with first right of refusal which later transformed into the current forms of the franchise tag and restricted free agency. Ultimately, unrestricted free agency came in 1992 after Reggie White sued the NFL and won against “Plan B” free agency in White vs. NFL, 836 F. Supp.1458 (1993). The NBA, prior to 1988, had a similar model as the NFL’s “Plan B” free agency. But, in 1988 CBA negotiations led to a legal battle which ended with a new CBA that allowed players with seven seasons or more and going into their third contract unrestricted free agency. Many players, including Moses Malone and Sidney Moncrief, were among the first to enter into unrestricted free agency.

These events, when taken all together, weave a long and tedious journey for athletic liberation being led by a Black professional against white institutions through legal adjudication. Again, this reprises Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of the “arc of justice” bending long towards freedom. For Blacks, in general, this began with Joseph Cinqué’s 1841 case United States vs. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518to 1856’s Dred Scott vs. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393to 1896’s Plessy vs. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 to 1954’s  Brown vs. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483. Furthermore, just as we’ve seen racism and systemic oppression persist and have a resurgence in America, the NCAA’s new rule against Rich Paul (and the NBA’s silent complicity) has shown the persistent racism and systemic oppression of black athletes and agents like Rich Paul.

Consequently, these issues will only be addressed if we go beyond the passive “outreach” of social media, like LeBron’s justified tweet in defense of Rich Paul, and delve deep into true political lobbying and grassroots advocacy by agents, players, critics, and fans to fight these rules and speak truth to power. Organizations like the NCAA, NBA, NFL, & MLB lean on their financial, political, and social capital to disproportionately influence organizations, individuals, and structures. It is time that a multicultural, cross-sector coalition, that is led by Black and minority leaders, attack these issues of equity, diversity, & inclusion within sports and entertainment at all levels. And, this does not need another study to prove the case because the data and anecdotal evidence exist and align already. I encourage my fellow man of Benedictine, Rich Paul, to continue to do his thing and continue being a role model and entrepreneur because the Rich Paul Rule is here – but, hopefully, not for long as we have yet more rivers to cross.