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Michael Schiavone, Sports and labor in the United States

Igor Martinache
Sports and Labor in the United States
Michael Schiavone, Sports and Labor in the United States, New York, SUNY Press, 2015, 230 p., ISBN : 9781438456812.
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  • 1 See Sébastien Fleuriel and Manuel Schotté, Sportifs en danger. La condition des travailleurs sporti (...)

1Professional athletes epitomize one of the major paradoxes of our time: whereas they receive more admiration than many if not every other social group, and thus generate tremendous economic transactions, they are seldom considered as real workers. Whether it is because they are lucky enough to earn a living while playing a game which constitutes a passion for them or because most of their strains and sacrifices are invisible to the public eye, they are often depicted as ‘greedy millionaires who want more’ if they dare to stage collective action in order to maintain or improve their working conditions. This situation is all the more paradoxical given that other show business superstars such as actors or singers, and business tycoons who can earn even more, receive much less criticism even though their careers are longer and they face fewer risks of interruption by injury or other accidents. With regards to France, several sociologists have demonstrated that such a denial of the working dimension of sport exposes athletes to a double heteronomy, with respect to club managers on the one hand, and the market on the other.1 In addition to this strong dependence, the fierce competition between athletes, even (and especially) when they belong to the same teams, also seems to act as a powerful deterrent to collective action, as does the liberal ideology of personal achievement. Nonetheless labour conflicts do occur in sports, and even play a major role in the dynamics of (social) games’ rules.

  • 2 A single player’s representative association, owners, negotiators and league authorities clearly in (...)
  • 3 That is to say periodic collective bargaining, strikes and lockouts but also individual court cases
  • 4 As in other fields, wages and labour conditions and, more specifically, minimum wages and collectiv (...)

2This is the first lesson the book teaches. A specialist in labor relations at the Flinders University in South Australia, Michael Schiavone recounts the history of the four major American professional sports ‘markets’, that is to say baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey, from the uncommon point of view of the relations between players and club owners. Although each sport is analyzed in a specific chapter, the author nevertheless offers a comparative perspective, which makes it possible to understand the extent to which the ‘game’ differs from one case to another. In each sport, the actors,2 the structure3 and the issues4 of labor relations may appear to be similar, but their specific dynamics lead to quite different results when they are scrutinized case by case.

3To begin with, baseball certainly epitomizes the way in which collective action in professional sports may obtain and maintain social advances for players. Even though there have been attempts at various times to organize players into what could be labeled as a kind of union (the National Brotherhood of Baseball Players, the Players Protective Association or the American Baseball Guilds), all of them failed more or less quickly and Major League Baseball’s (MLB) labour relations have been quite peaceful. At least that was the situation before 1972 – in contrast to the following two decades during which the struggle between players and owners was ongoing with numerous strikes and lockouts aimed at obtaining concessions from the other party in collective negotiations. The reason for this shift in relations at the beginning of the 1970s lies in the successful expansion of the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) under the leadership of Marvin Miller, who worked as counsel for the United Steelworkers union before being elected Executive Director of the MLBPA, bringing with him practical experience from his former position. Thus, as Schiavone points out, Miller and his successors managed to create a militant culture among baseball players, that is to say a strong and united rank and file following the issues raised by the Association's leaders. In contrast to the other major sports leagues, the MLB was recognized early on by the courts as being beyond the remit of the Sherman Antitrust Act. For this reason, the owners never managed to get the players to withdraw in any of their disputes until now, or to impose a collective salary cap, as was the case for the three other major sports. Thus, in 2014, the average salary of players in MLB was about 4 million dollars, while owners’ profits were actually far higher – around 8.5 billion dollars – which means that the players’ share of the baseball revenue has declined over the period.

4The Super Bowl – the name by which the final game of the football season is known – is by far the most watched single television broadcast in the United States. No fewer than 115 million people watched Super Bowl 49 in 2015. However, as Michael Schiavone reports, football players have paradoxically never managed to win any significant improvement in their working conditions. Their main achievements occurred as the result of legal victories with regards to the weakening of the reserve clause that allows club owners to prevent players from changing teams.

5In football, the 1970s and 1980s were just as tumultuous for collective negotiations as in baseball. However, the leaders of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) failed when it came to promoting solidarity among the players’ ranks, thus allowing owners to impose their conditions to a large extent. Nevertheless, the (limited) free agency gained in the courts seems to have strengthened solidarity among the players as well as their collective bargaining power, as suggested by the level of resistance during the last lockout in 2011.

6Another key issue, shared by ice hockey players that is not taken into account in collective bargaining negotiations concerns the frequent concussions players suffer during games and the subsequent lesions, especially on the brain, that constitute a serious health hazard. Endeavors by the NFL as well as the major media to water down this topic and owners’ attempts to increase the number of games during the season do not fuel optimism that the situation will change in the years to come.

7Professional basketball is also characterized by lockouts and lack of solidarity among players, with some superstars preferring to act as mavericks. Despite the creation of a Players Association (NBAPA), this sport has continued to make concessions during negotiations after fierce lockouts, or threats of lockouts, by the owners. In hockey as in baseball it was also the arrival of a militant leader at the head of the Players Association (the NHLPA) at the beginning of the 1990s that marked a turning point in labor relations. Despite periodic strikes as early as the 1920s, players generally demonstrated a lack of solidarity. Like Marvin Miller of the MLBPA, Bob Goodenow nevertheless managed to unify them behind the Association and so obtain significant wage increases in the 1992 collective bargaining agreement. On the other hand, with the arrival of Gary Bettman at the head of the NHL, the feeling of victory was short-lived: he also adopted a very hard line, but it was matched by that of the club owners who did not hesitate to stage lasting lockouts. More than two full seasons were cancelled and the players had to make huge concessions in terms of wages and conditions, without even the imposition of a collective salary cap, to the tune of half their revenues. To a certain extent, the players are still paying the bill for irrelevant management decisions made by the franchise owners and league commissioners, chief among them being the relocation of some teams from Canada to the American sunbelt where there is no real interest in hockey. Finally, it should be noted that, unlike in football, some decisions have been adopted in recent years to reduce concussions by a rule banning all body checks involving the head. This rule change does not appear to be commensurate, however, with the stakes involved since it does not adequately address the severity of the issue nor compensate the victims for the gravity of their injuries.

  • 5 Such as the luxury taxes that are imposed on teams and whose benefits are entirely redistributed to (...)

8The parallel presentation of these four cases undoubtedly offers the reader a considerable amount of material, providing behind the scenes information on the extent to which labor relations matter in professional sports. Its lively and pedagogical style makes it accessible even for non-specialists of both sport and industrial relations. The author underlines particularly well the specificities of the intersection of these two domains, not only the issues, which may differ from one sport and one period to another, but also the different tactics used by each camp to gain power in negotiations. Thus, for example, owners are known to cheat on their club’s financial statements in order to appear to lose money and strengthen demands for concessions from the players. Likewise, players choose the right moment to threaten to organize a strike, near the end of the season during the so-called playoffs, when the players have already received a large part of their wages and most of the TV revenues are still to come. It is to be regretted perhaps that the broad scale of the argument renders difficult a full understanding of the subtle dynamics of the numerous related conflicts, which demands deeper sociological insights. In spite of this, the book is a landmark in these significant but neglected dimensions of labour relations within sporting organizations, which can no longer be ignored given the tremendous and even increasing financial revenues these peculiar spectacles continues to generate. The author demonstrates how, far from being as greedy as they are generally depicted, its principal actors are demanding no more than their fair share of the revenues, which they are failing to obtain. Though things are far from perfect in America, Schiavone’s account provides a good idea of the situation for non-American readers, particularly in Europe where labor relations are much less organized, leaving players more disoriented and to a certain extent exploited. All in all, as in other industries, as the author finally points out – while, strangely, adding ‘unfortunately’ – ‘labour conflict in professional sports is a matter of when, not if’. It is perhaps also to be regretted that while he duly emphasizes the issue of how the ‘cake’ is shared, he does not question clearly enough the size of the ‘cake’. Not surprisingly, public authorities – with the exception of the courts – are totally absent from the narrative, despite the fact that they could intervene to safeguard players’ health and their future, and also impose some form of overall revenue cap for sports and TV industries by creating special taxes.5 Some would reply, however, that such questions are quite unrelated, or even political fiction…

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Notes

1 See Sébastien Fleuriel and Manuel Schotté, Sportifs en danger. La condition des travailleurs sportifs, Éditions du Croquant, 2008. A review in French is available on Lectures : https://lectures.revues.org/553

2 A single player’s representative association, owners, negotiators and league authorities clearly inclined in favor of the latter.

3 That is to say periodic collective bargaining, strikes and lockouts but also individual court cases.

4 As in other fields, wages and labour conditions and, more specifically, minimum wages and collective and individual salary caps, free agency, number of games during the season, meal money, pension plans, and so forth.

5 Such as the luxury taxes that are imposed on teams and whose benefits are entirely redistributed to less wealthy teams.

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Igor Martinache, « Michael Schiavone, Sports and labor in the United States », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2016, mis en ligne le 25 janvier 2016, consulté le 14 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/19936

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