Are you a free agent?

Free agency is reconfiguring the basic assumptions of American work and life. And as these tectonic plates slide into new positions, what appears on the surface will begin to change as well. Existing arrangements will topple, new ones will arise in their place. For all the talk about paradigm shifts, and digital revolutions for each climb of the S&P 500 and collapse in the NASDAQ … we’ve been missing the larger story. Free agency is the real new economy.   

Daniel Pink 2001

It’s hard to watch the news.

So much violence, crime, sex, drugs, greed, and racism and I’m just talking about the sports page. 😊 

Can’t hear the words “free agent” and not think about sports. 50 years ago, when baseball player Curt Flood and others pioneered the path in baseball and eventually for all pro sports—that the players were not owned by the teams and the owners. Players can move and negotiate their own deals and let the open marketplace dictate compensation and value.
But like everything, the concept of free agency in baseball  was a hard fought right that has been taken to the extremes. 

Not enough space here, nor interest in reviewing what has happened this year. But consider the following: 

  • NIL (name, image and likeness) agreements for elite college football and basketball athletes where freshman who have not started classes will have incomes well over $500,000 per year.
  • LIV golf tour sponsored by the Saudi government, allegedly guaranteeing incomes of players and caddies, some exceeding $100mm 
  • NCAA football conferences have been crumbling under the pressure of tv rights and athletic department deficits. The recent announcement of teams joining the Big 10 from the Pac 12 confirms that the last shred of academia has been stripped from college football for the almighty dollar.

If you do not know about these events, not to worry. Suffice it to say that it just reflects the financialization of everything, the degradation of competition, and the unvarnished leap into the abyss of avarice. 

All I see is greed. Money is the jet fuel that is driving the engines of sports off the road of any remaining sanity and semblance of athleticism. Like so many other industries, the concentration of wealth is being flaunted, and monopolies embraced— all wrapped in a Louis Vuitton bag of inequity we have bequeathed our progeny. What message does it send to our youth?

I realize I sound like the old man I am.  But while the value of free agency in sports may be corrupted, the concept of career free agency is powering part of the Great Resignation and all of us who seek greater fulfillment and meaning from our lives.

Are you a free agent? Where do you stand on the freedom and agency scales?

Such a powerful combo of words: Free plus Agency. Autonomy and capability. We all want this in our personal and professional lives, don’t we? Imagine: freedom without agency and agency without freedom. Unacceptable. Yet most of us put up with great compromises in both.

It makes me think about Daniel Pink’s books DRIVE and Free Agent Nation. In DRIVE, a meta study of studies of what drives us and others, autonomy was cited as one of the most important motivators, along with mastery and purpose. Money had very limited endurance as a motivator. And Free Agent Nation written at the cusp of the dot-com era 20 years ago, detailed the trends and recommendations to take control of one’s career which is still very relevant.

To be a truly free agent, you must know who you are, what you want and what your value is to yourself and of course to the marketplace.  Free agency is a mindset that nurtures a pursuit of excellence, a value of relationships, purpose, and a loyalty to the “game”. Free agency is not job hopping, or free lancing or random experimentation of careers. It can certainly start there but free agency is the continuous pursuit of one’s gifts and the generation of meaningful contributions to something more important than oneself. Pink described free agent loyalty not “vertical” to employer institutions but “side to side” loyalty—Fierce commitment to the craft, to the clients, to colleagues and to the professional community. If there is greed, it is the insatiable desire for opportunity. Free agency stalks opportunity, the opportunity to express oneself, to add real and lasting value, to be well compensated but never motivated by money alone or untethered from the authentic interests of the free agent and the broader community.

We all want free agency–freedom and agency—how can you have more? Help others get it? And when will we achieve it?

Thanks for reading. John

Curt Flood was a rebel and a pioneer. Arguably the pivotal figure in sport’s labor history when he refused to accept a trade from the St Louis Cardinals in 1969. Baseball had received an exemption from Congress to be immune from anti-trust laws. Flood appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His legal challenge  was unsuccessful and ruined his career, It ultimately brought about solidarity among players and baseball adopted free agency. Would Flood be happy about what his personal battle unleashed on sports? 

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