Spencer Haywood took one hell of a stand when he sued the NBA and won in 1971.
To understand the significance of the former All-Star’s lawsuit, it’s necessary to understand the context in which it emerged. Before Haywood’s case, the NBA had a “four-year rule,” which dictated that a player could not enter the NBA until four years after his high school graduation.
The rule essentially forced athletes to play four years in college before joining the league. After Haywood’s sophomore season in college, he joined the American Basketball Association (ABA) and played a season with the Denver Rockets, where he was named the MVP and Rookie of the Year. However, facing financial difficulties, Haywood sought to join the NBA.
The Seattle Sonics acquired him in 1970 but the NBA responded by trying to block the move, citing its four-year rule. Haywood and the SuperSonics took the matter to court. They argued that the four-year rule was a restraint of trade, violating antitrust laws. The legal battle eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.
Here’s how Haywood himself told the story on a new episode of KG Certified with Kevin Garnett.
“When it got to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was on the court. He was one of the Justices on the court and he kept saying, “You know, it’s ironic this case is not affecting tennis players, hockey players, baseball players, and he kept going on with different sports. And ironically it’s only the two revenue sports in college that this rule is affecting.
“And so he said, ‘We’re sending our soldiers to Vietnam at age 18, they’re coming back maimed and hurt and sick and dying. Yet you got a player whose mother is picking cotton in Silver City, Mississippi, for two dollars a day… He makes all this money for the Olympics, he made all this money for the university, he made all this money for the ABA, and yet he can’t make a living in the NBA? So that’s when the Justices got together and they came 7-2 in favour of me. And that’s when the case was over, March 1st 1971.”
While the Supreme Court did not abolish the four-year rule outright, it stated the NBA couldn’t enforce the rule if a player could demonstrate financial hardship.
And while Haywood has claimed he never intended to set a precedent for future players, his actions did exactly that.