The players’ associations are the perfect illustration of the politicization of American sport. But how are these unions organized and above all what are their main actions?
According to Laura Ingraham, athletes must “shut up and dribble”. With her words, the polemicist and conservative journalist at Fox denied, in February 2018, the citizenship status as well as the right of expression of basketball players LeBron James and Kevin Durant following their remarks against Donald Trump. By reducing them to mere ball-playing machines, new evidence was born to show that between sports and politics there was only one step and that the American sports leagues are indeed politicized.
Last week, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr spoke out against the gun lobby and the increase in mass shootings in the United States after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. .
Decrease the superpower of owners
To reform is to develop. It was with this in mind that the American sports leagues began to grow during the 1950s. At that time, the NBA began its development by attracting new franchises, the NHL (hockey) and the MLB (baseball). were preparing a plan of several recommendations in order to increase their attractiveness. And finally the NHL, then composed of only six teams, was trying to open the doors for a first major expansion.
On the advice of Boston star Bob Cousy in 1954, an NBA players’ union was formed under the name of National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), now led by fullback CJ McCollum. At the time, the players wanted their voices to be heard in order to denounce the salaries that were too low (8,000 dollars per year), and the absence of health benefits, a pension plan and a minimum wage.
Two years later in 1956, it was the turn of the NFL (US football) to set up its union National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) when the two Cleveland Browns players Abe Gibron and Dante Lavelli contacted a lawyer to set up an association to defend the interests of the players. The demands were rather pecuniary with the elaboration of a minimum wage, the assumption of responsibility for equipment and the continuous payment of wages in the event of injury.
In MLB, it will be necessary to wait until 1966 for the creation of its official players’ association, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), and only 1967 for NHL with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) following the demotion to the minor leagues of Ted Lindsey and Doug Harvey after they asked the league for full transparency on the economic figures made public.
As in every period of innovation, it is important to avoid certain excesses by leaving aside the direct players in the life of the leagues: the creation of unions and associations therefore comes from the desire to protect the players, at the heart of the development of the leagues. , so that they are not harmed or used as mere tools for expansion by franchise owners or league management.
Ensuring a right to speak on the evolution of the leagues
Over the years and while these associations are gaining in importance, the field of action of players’ unions goes beyond the simple framework of social benefits to play a broader role in sporting changes, which directly concern sport. This power allows players to have an impact on the evolution of the leagues, and in particular on the proposals made to change the internal system or even certain aspects of the game and the organization of the seasons.
In a situation of disagreement with the managers or commissioners, the players’ unions can set up a lockout which in short takes the form of a generalized strike which delays the start of the season.
The 2004 NHL season was nearly canceled in its entirety before the NHLPA reached an agreement with the league setting a salary cap for each franchise. In the NBA, the players’ association has given its approval for the organization of the private bubble in Orlando during the 2020 Playoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic. A major revolution that the basketball league has established, but by surveying the basketball players concerned.
In American football, the most recent example is the signing of a new agreement which took effect in 2020 for a period of ten years: this changes the format of the Playoffs which goes to 14 teams with a shortened preseason. A major modification for the operation of the league, decided with the agreement of the NFLAP. The NFL has also often had to deal with questions around the use of marijuana by its athletes, but also the mental health of players linked, among other things, to concussions due to violent shocks.
Take a stand on non-sporting issues
If sport is a great communication tool, then leagues play the role of a perfect platform to spread social messages and give weight to a cause or a fight. Athletes have been able to take advantage of their regular organization to meet and discuss annoying subjects, capital social issues for American society. Athlete yes, but above all an American citizen and the athletes have assimilated it well.
In the digital age where social networks are omnipresent, where a simple tweet can upset Wall Street, athletes know that they have a voice that carries, a natural charisma with several young active generations.
If the players’ unions do not organize real official demonstrations, they agree on the fact that it is important to express opinions. This perspective accelerated in the 2010s with several speeches, gestures, symbols that athletes did not hesitate to say, wear and repeat in their respective careers.
The best illustration remains the case of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he knelt during the American national anthem before an NFL game. A gesture to protest against racism in the United States and police violence against African-Americans: a wave of support was subsequently born in the NFL with his teammate Eric Reid and his coach Chip Kelly but also in the other leagues, in particular in the NBA.
After he left San Francisco, no franchise offered him a contract, and Kaepernick decided to file a lawsuit against the league and its owners for collusion that would prevent him from playing in the NFL. A decision encouraged by several players from the NFL Players Union.
The other striking example concerns the NBA, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, where many NBA players gathered in the streets of several cities to join the cause. Black Lives Matter. The NBA players’ association even went so far as to force the league to postpone meetings because the teams refused to play, at a time when social combat was more important.
Other social struggles have captured the spotlight in American sports, especially for the LGBTQ community. Many athletes have, over the years, used their league to come out, such as David Denson (baseball) in 2019, Jason Collins (NBA) in 2013 or even Michael Sam, Ryan O’Callaghan and Ryan Russell (US football) – to name but a few.