A gentlemen’s agreement is an informal agreement between two or more parties. It may be written, oral, or simply understood as part of an unspoken agreement by convention or through mutually beneficial etiquette. The essence of a gentleman’s agreement is that it relies upon the honor of the parties for its fulfilment, rather than being in any way enforceable. It is, therefore, distinct from a legal agreement or contract, which can be enforced if necessary. The phrase’s first recorded use was in 1888 in the Report of the Railway Accounting Officers published by the Association of American Railroads Accounting Division (page 337).
The term has come to sound distinctly old fashioned, because of its implicit assumption that both parties will be gentlemen (and the old-fashioned nature of that phrase). After interwar politics in Europe the phrase has gained somewhat the connotation of an agreement easily broken.
In the United States, the term has also acquired negative connotations because it was used in various places in the early-mid 20th century to refer to unwritten discriminatory agreements relating to housing and employment of black and Jewish people. Because there was no written policy stating, for example, that black or Jewish families weren’t allowed to reside in a particular town, there were no grounds for legal action.
- Professional Wrestling often relies on a “handshake agreement” between the performer and the promoter in regard to money and work dates. This is usually used in independent promotions that don’t have the resources to draft legal agreements.
- In Major League Baseball, there was a gentlemen’s agreement which lasted for 60 years that barred African-Americans from Major League Baseball. This ban was finally broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
- In association football, there is an unwritten rule that, in the case of an injury, if a player on the team opposite the injured player’s team has possession, he/she will put the ball out of play (thus “giving it up” to the opposition) so that the injured player may be treated. Upon resuming play, the injured player’s team is expected return the ball to the opposing team, allowing both teams to resume play as normal. The rule, though not officially imposed, is normally followed dutifully. However, occasions where the rule is not observed have been known to lead to great animosity between the teams (and thus a more physical game). The most well known example of this is a FIFA World Cup 2006 match between Portugal and the Netherlands.
- In amateur (public) “E-Sports” leagues or ladders, teams will often have agreements to allow or disallow players, rules or equipment that would otherwise be allowed or prohibited (depending on what is being agreed to) from use. A example would be a team allowing their opponents to include a new team member in the match, even if the rules of the competition say they are only allowed to play after a set time period or not until their team has completed one match with the new player on the roster.
- The City of Philadelphia maintained a gentleman’s agreement, enforced by long time City Planning Director Edmund Bacon, regarding the height of all buildings within Center City. The agreement maintained that no building be built higher than the shoe buckles on the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. This agreement was forever broken with the groundbreaking of One Liberty Place in 1985.
- A now-defunct agreement between the major Japanese auto manufacturers to limit the maximum engine power of their cars to 280 PS (206 kW or 276 hp).
- Boeing Commercial Airplanes signed exclusivity contracts with American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and Delta Air Lines in separate but nearly identical arrangements, regarding the supply of airliners. The European Union forced the contracts to be voided when Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas, but American Airlines, Delta and Continental are continuing to adhere to the terms under gentlemen’s agreements.
- All major Japanese manufacturers voluntarily agreed to restrict the top speed of their motorcycles to 300 km/h (186 mph). The late 1990s saw “power wars” between various motorcycle manufacturers that culminated in Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa, the first production motorcycle to exceed this speed in 1999, and Kawasaki ZX-12R, designed to exceed 320 km/h (200 mph).
- German carmakers put a 250 km/h (155 mph) speed limit on their automobiles except sports cars.
- Until the late 1990s a gentleman’s agreement existed between UK spirit manufacturers not to advertise on television.