Athletes are the future of the labor movement

We’re not used to seeing athletes as workers. That’s quickly changing.

Maxine McCrann
Game On
ByBritni de la Cretaz

In the ESPN documentary 144, which recounts the WNBA’s bubble season during the pandemic, Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams speaks to a room full of her colleagues. Jacob Blake had just been shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the WNBA postponed three games in response, in solidarity with a labor action by NBA players to sit out too. This all came in the middle of a season dedicated to granting justice for Breonna Taylor and other Black women who have been killed by police officers.

"We can [sing] Kumbaya all day, all night, but we've got to come up with something,” Williams says to the room. “I'm not willing to give up my check, because that's the only reason why I’m here." The room is quiet as she continues."People eat off [my paycheck], so I decided to come here,” Williams says of her decision to play in the bubble. “I didn't come here like, 'Oh power to the people, let me come here to make a stance.' I could have did that at the crib. You know what I mean? I came here to get a check.”

What was so powerful about this moment is that it made visible something that has long been unseen: The athletes of the WNBA were having an organizing meeting. Their union was debating what they should do in response to not only the NBA’s actions, but the ongoing uprisings to protest police brutality and systemic racism impacting Black Americans. The discussion was just one of many ongoing conversations the league had both before their bubble season and during it, about whether they should sit out this season or play — which ultimately creates an issue between laborers and managers.

Williams’s contribution to the discourse — which was met with understanding on screen and firm support on social media from her colleagues after the film aired — demonstrated the very real issues behind the league’s visible platform. The WNBA players had eyes on them, but people’s livelihoods were at stake too. Whatever move they decided on would reverberate far beyond the room they were debating in.

Ultimately, the athletes decided they would have a bigger platform and louder voice — and, therefore, greater impact — if they were to keep playing, rather than sitting out.

So, the laborers opted to work rather than strike. They took the court.

The Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association, the official name of the league’s players’ union, was formed in 1998, just two years after the WNBA started. Such a quick unionization — when the league itself wasn’t even sure if it would survive — was unprecedented. But the players felt like they could put in the effort to build this new entity while also fighting to be paid a living wage; they recognized that growing a league didn’t have to come at the expense of the players whose labor that league hinged on. The W’s union has since come to exemplify the platonic ideal of a sports union, with its players feeling consistently empowered to take stances on issues related to social justice, and to demand more benefits for themselves and their families.

“​​I come from a community organizing background,” says Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBPA. “Anytime we're watching organizing, this is a movement. I get very excited that people can see it for that. What the players did — the social justice work in the bubble — that was organizing.”

The first athletes’ union, The Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, was formed in 1885, after players rebelled against low pay and created a union and their own league. The league itself didn’t last long, but the union set a precedent for what could be possible. In the modern era, the National Basketball Association was the first pro sport to unionize in 1954, followed by the National Football League in 1956, Major League Baseball in 1965, and the National Hockey League in 1967.

These early unions fought for things like minimum salaries and paid time off, so athletes could still receive their salary if they were out with an injury. MLB players didn’t win the right to free agency until 1975, a process that allowed the athletes to take greater control of where they played and leverage their talents for more money, putting power back in the players’ hands and away from team owners. But it didn’t come without a cost: Curt Flood, the player whose refusal to accept a trade in 1969 eventually made free agency a reality, had his career ruined as a result of his advocacy. (There is currently a campaign, Flood the Hall, pushing to have him voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to honor his contributions to the sport.)

“Without a union, management can change whatever they want. Anything, anytime, because there are no structures in place to fight it.”

“[Athletes] produce a commodity spectacle through their labor and through their physical and emotional sacrifice,” says Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a co-host of the End of Sport podcast and a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University, where he teaches on labor, inequality, and sport. But although most professional sports have been unionized for decades now, the power of sports unions has seemingly decreased in recent decades. That is in part because, especially in the United States, we are conditioned not to see athletes as workers. We characterize sports as play, and we view those who play sports for a living as privileged and fortunate. That makes it difficult, for both the athletes and the fans, to understand that professional athletes are in fact workers providing a service in exchange for money.

“Without a union, management can change whatever they want. Anything, anytime, because there are no structures in place to fight it,” Marc Normandin, a freelance sports labor journalist, tells Mic. He points to the 2020 season as an example. “With the various sports leagues that were unionized, they were able to take a step back during the coronavirus pandemic, and say, ‘If we're going to start the season in a pandemic, we need to establish some ground rules and work together to figure out what this is going to look like.’”

Case in point: The MLB’s players union was able to ensure some financial security for players while the start of the season was indefinitely delayed by securing salary advances; the WNBPA was able to guarantee rookie players’ health care coverage would begin when it was supposed to, even as the season itself was postponed; and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) focused on player safety by ensuring that all offseason programming would occur remotely.

Compare that to Minor League Baseball, where there isn’t a union. Their season was canceled without any input from the players. They were told they were going to get a stipend for a month and that was it. MiLB players make minimums of $500 to $700 per week (and that’s with a pay raise prior to the 2021 season), and some considered having to sleep in their cars once they lost their stipends. Getting cut off from what’s already pretty meager pay with barely a month’s notice was ruinous for many, and they were forced to side-hustle to get by.

Eventually, public pressure forced MLB’s hand, and the minor league players ended up getting their stipend through the end of the year. But “it took external interest in their plight to make that change happen,” Normandin points out. “They had no power themselves. It's not like they could go on strike and not play the game. There were no games to be played.”

While MiLB players saw their long-awaited salary increase prior to the 2021 season, most are still barely scraping by and dealing with subpar treatment. Without a union, individual players — both current and former — are doing what they can to fight for better treatment, through groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers or social media accounts like Minor League Grinders.

Some leagues are having more success when it comes to building collective power. The NBA G League, the development league that feeds into the NBA (similar to the minor leagues in baseball), recently unionized, and that union was recognized immediately by the parent league. Major League Soccer players flexed their union muscles earlier this year as threats of a work stoppage loomed. The National Women’s Soccer League Players’ Association recently launched its #NoMoreSideHustles campaign, ahead of its first ever CBA negotiations, in an attempt to sway public opinion and put pressure on the league to increase player salaries. And following harrowing reporting from The Athletic last Thursday in which a long-time NWSL coach was accused of sexual coercion by multiple players, the NWSLPA offered access to a sports psychologist and anonymous hotline for players who needed additional support.

The New York Times reported that the union organized a call for athletes Thursday night, after The Athletic’s story broke. After two hours of discussion and “close to midnight,” per the Times, the NWSLPA demanded the league cancel the weekend’s slate of games. “No one could be certain what would happen if the league declined,” the paper reported. On Friday morning, though, the league agreed to scrap the five games on the schedule — and issued a terse announcement that the NWSL commissioner had resigned.

The WNBPA was already strong heading into the bubble season, having just negotiated a brand new, revolutionary collective bargaining agreement that was finalized in January 2020. In those negotiations, the players won higher salaries, guaranteed paid maternity leave, and increased investment in marketing. After that, they understood their power as a unit — which, Jackson says, made it possible for their bubble negotiations to happen as swiftly and effectively as they did.

Not all sports unions are as strong. Major League Baseball’s union, in particular, sees less coordinated collective action in the way some other sports do, which Normandin speculates is partially a result of the age of the union.

“There's something about the relative youth of those unions that’s a benefit to them,” Normandin says, “because all those players know what has been fought for in other leagues and what is being fought for in theirs. Whereas with something a little more established, I think it's easier for the players to roll over because they already have it pretty good, and maybe they don't understand what happens if they stop clamoring for more gains.”

There has recently been a resurgence of unions in a variety of industries, including journalism, broadcasting, and education. Recent polling shows that Americans’ approval of labor unions has hit a near-60-year high, with 68% of Americans saying they approve of them. (The highest figure ever recorded was in 1965, when 71% of Americans said they approved.)

“Those women are fierce, dedicated, disciplined, elite athletes. They are Black and brown and lesbian. And we saw them exuding power and confidence as social justice warriors.”

Union organizers outside of sports hope that workers from all industries will see what their favorite athletes have been able to accomplish at the bargaining table and be inspired. The Washington State Labor Education and Research Center put on a summer school for rank-and-file union women this summer and looked to the WNBA to teach lessons in organizing. Jackson, the WNBPA executive director, sat on a panel alongside Crystal Langhorne, a former Seattle Storm player and the team’s current director of community engagement.

“I watched the work in the bubble and I believed I was seeing something extraordinary unfold,” says Adair Dammann, the director of the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center who brought the summer school to life. “I thought it was an amazing display of courage and unity and collective power unfolding. But I knew that I was watching a labor activity unfold, because I'm a trade unionist. And I could see it.”

Clips from 144 were shown at the panel. “We had to show that clip,” Dammann says of Williams’s speech. “I think linking those women to the women I work with every day in the labor movement was so important, because those women are fierce, dedicated, disciplined, elite athletes. They are Black and brown and lesbian. And we saw them exuding power and confidence as social justice warriors. And that is something that I wish I could introduce everyone in the labor movement.”

144 isn’t the only recent film to make this labor visible. LFG (for “let’s fucking go”), a documentary about the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s equal pay lawsuit against governing body U.S. Soccer, dropped in June on HBO Max; their union is currently negotiating new contracts. Last year, the USWNT sold t-shirts that were modeled after an in-game protest in which they turned their warm-up shirts inside out so as to obscure the U.S. Soccer crest. It was a brilliant entry in the recent tradition of athletes using their jerseys and equipment as tools for justice, as the Los Angeles Clippers did in 2014 with their warm-up shirts to protest racist then-team owner Donald Sterling, and NHL goalie Braden Holtby has done for LGBTQ+ rights with his face mask. Last month, MiLB players started wearing wristbands emblazoned with the slogan #FairBall to protest low pay in their league, and their effort has been supported by major leaguers now too.

Between these new documentaries highlighting the labor struggle that is at the heart of professional sports and players consistently taking individual action, this generation of athletes — led by the women’s leagues — is making labor organizing something to be proud of. It’s a form of social justice action that can be applied to people in any industry, and the people leading the charge for the athletes hope that’s exactly what will happen.

“Every worker is confronted with a struggle between labor and capital. That's what's happening, whether we recognize it or not,” Kalman-Lamb tells Mic. “And what unions are is a countervailing force against capitalism. ... And so is an athlete better off with a union? The answer has to be ‘yes.’”