NFL

A Washington Redskins Lawsuit Almost Forced the NFL Draft to End

As one of the NFL’s oldest franchises, the Washington Redskins are no strangers to the NFL draft. Aside from quarterbacks, the Redskins have had great luck with some of their first-round picks in the last 20 years alone.

The NFL draft, as Joe Burrow and other No. 1 picks will share, is a staple of American sports culture. A lawsuit involving the Washington Redskins, though, nearly forced the draft to end for good.

The Washington Redskins drafted defensive back Jim Smith in 1968

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Before the NFL draft was the spectacle it is today, the event had a very basic formula to it. Teams picked a player over a conference call and the player, usually signed with that team without holding out for more money.

The Washington Redskins held the 12th overall pick in the 1968 NFL draft. The team drafted Oregon defensive back Jim “Wazoo” Smith, an All-American in college, at that spot.

A 6-foot-3 defensive back, Smith brought excellent coverage and kick returning skills to the Redskins. He played in 14 games as a rookie and forced a fumble, recovered three fumbles, scored a touchdown, and totaled 99 yards on kick and punt returns.

Unfortunately, that 1968 season was Jim Smith’s only in the NFL. He suffered a neck injury and his hopes of continuing an NFL career ended at that point.

Smith sued the NFL and the Redskins after an injury

A lawsuit involving the Washington Redskins almost forced the NFL to stop holding its annual draft.
A lawsuit involving the Washington Redskins almost forced the NFL to stop holding its annual draft. | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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Even in 2020, teams and the NFL reach injury settlements with players. That goes for players who get hurt on their own time doing activities prohibited in their contract to players who suffered a serious injury on the field.

The NFL has also reached settlements with players who suffered concussions and brain trauma, although that is another conversation.

Jim Smith sued the Washington Redskins and the NFL in 1970 over the injury, but he wasn’t just upset about the neck problem. For Smith, his issue was more that the draft violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, a law designed to regulate competition and job opportunities among similar companies.

Smith signed for $50,000 in 1968, which is $368,375.00 in 2020, according to the Inflation Calculator. He believed he could have received a better contract had he been able to negotiate with every team instead of only the Redskins.

Jim Smith’s lawsuit almost ended the NFL draft’s future

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Jim Smith succeeded when he had his days in court. He received $276,000 from the district court in damages and won again when the league appealed that ruling.

By 1977, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the NFL draft,”inescapably forces each seller of football services to deal with one, and only one buyer, robbing the seller, as in any monopsonistic market, of any real bargaining power.”

So if the U.S. Court of Appeals essentially ruled the NFL draft is problematic, why was it allowed to continue?

The NFL found a loophole, also known as a non-statutory labor exemption. If the NFL partnered with the players’ association and the players sanctioned the draft, things could proceed as normal.

Jimmy “Wazoo” Smith nearly ended the NFL draft in its tracks. The NFL has not only continued its annual draft, but it turned what was once a conference call into a three-day, extremely profitable event.