The history of NFL free agency goes back to 1947. The first free agent in NFL history was Charley Trippi. He signed with the Chicago Cardinals in ’47 after his contract with the team expired.
However, free agency as we know it today, with unrestricted players being able to sign with any team, was introduced in 1992. This was only after players sued for the right to choose their own teams as free agents.
The complex history of NFL free agency
According to the Bleach Report (cited below), prior to 1947, a “clause in a player’s contract allowed the team to re-sign him every year to the same contract, meaning that he wasn’t going anywhere unless they traded him or he decided to retire. This was considered acceptable by just about everyone until players started to step forward and demand some sort of role in these transactions.”
Between 1989 and 1992, the NFL instituted a policy called “Plan B.” The decision allowed teams to protect their 37 best players each year.
An 8-woman federal jury found Plan B to be illegal in 1992. This happened after 8 players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. According to a New York Times story after the verdict:
“The players argued that the league’s system of free agency — known as Plan B — constituted a restraint of trade by illegally limiting their ability to earn top salaries comparable with those of players in other pro sports.”
At the time, the NFL vowed to appeal the decision. Furthermore, they claimed that Plan B was essential to maintain a competitive balance between all 28 teams.
The jury awarded no damages to the players who filed the suit. But the judge ordered the NFL to pay their legal fees.
The first unrestricted free agent
The NFL’s first unrestricted free agent was Reggie White. White signed with the Green Bay Packers in 1993. White was a defensive lineman. He spent six seasons with the Packers and helped lead the team to victory in Super Bowl XXXI.
White’s signing as an unrestricted free agent was a landmark moment in NFL history, as it paved the way for other players to enjoy greater freedom and control over their careers. The current free agency system, which allows for unrestricted free agency and limits the use of the franchise tag, was put in place in part because of the lessons learned from White’s signing.