The Rise Of Labor Unions In Pro Sports

By Michael Macklon | April 25, 2013 AAA
The Rise Of Labor Unions In Pro Sports

In most cases, labor unions are born out of unfair working conditions and inadequate wages. Given today's glitzy, millionaire athletes, it's often forgotten that the pioneers of America's favorite sports leagues - iconic superstars such as Oscar Robertson, Johnny Unitas and Gordie Howe - were victims of tyrannical bosses, harsh expectations and unbalanced wages. Non-unionized athletes were treated as pieces of property that had no rights to pensions, healthcare benefits or even lunch money for road games. Today's pro athletes enjoy all these perks, while collecting salaries that eliminate the need for any of them. In the case of the following leagues, it took the resolution of a few brave players to stand up to the owners and demand a fair share of the revenues that their top-talent provided. (To learn more about labor unions, read Unions: Do They Help Or Hurt Workers?)

The National Hockey League
For the 2010-11 season, the NHL's average player salary was $2.4 million and the minimum wage was $500,000. Just prior to the formation of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) in 1967, it was rumored that players averaged about $10,000 to $15,000 per year, with no pension or healthcare plans. It was also common for pre-union NHLers to work summer jobs to support their families. In 1955, Tim Horton, star defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, summer construction worker and namesake of the popular coffee-and-doughnut franchise, broke his leg in a game. If a player missed a game, which Horton did miss several, he wasn't paid. And with no healthcare plan and no income, the Horton family struggled mightily to pay the bills. After the injury, Horton wasn't as effective, to which the Leafs management cried "indifferent play" and cut his salary the following year.

Such treatment inspired the Detroit Red Wings' Ted Lindsay to rally the players to form a union during the late 1950s. To cripple the movement, the Red Wings traded Lindsay to Chicago, where he was less effective in organizing key players to join him. Other influential players across the league were also traded away or banished to the minor leagues. Lindsay was successful in creating a small association of players, but the group folded shortly after Lindsay was traded. It wasn't until 1967 that the players were able to unite in enough numbers to convince the owners to recognize the demands of the NHLPA, and not punish players for being members. (With athletes becoming professional much earlier, it is important that those older players on the road to retirement have a proper pension. Check out Top Pro Athlete Pension Plans.)

Major League Baseball
Big league baseball boasts some of the largest salaries in all of sports, with the biggest being New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract, a salary the Yankees can easily justify by pointing to the $441 million in revenue they brought in for 2010. Baseball has long been a big business in America, but it took many incarnations of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) to get a fair portion of the revenue paid to the players. Starting with the 1885 Brotherhood of Professional Baseball players, players organized to increase their salaries and, most importantly, end the reserve clause that essentially gave owners the right to control where players could play. In 1887, Lippincott's Magazine published a piece describing the reserve rule as being used as, "a handle for the manipulation of a traffic in players, a sort of speculation in livestock, by which they are bought, sold and transferred like so many sheep."

The change of fortune the players sought finally came in 1965, when a group of players hired Marvin Miller, the former United Steelworkers of America economist. Miller educated the players on the basics of solidarity and helped them negotiate pro sports' first collective bargaining agreement. The deal increased the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000, and established the players' association as an official union. More empowered than ever, players began a series of individual lawsuits against MLB to challenge the reserve clause, with victory finally coming in 1975, opening the door to free-agency. (America favorite past time has been around for a long time. To learn the ins and out of how it is run, check out A History Of Baseball Economics)

The National Football League
With a players strike looming over the NFL for the 2011-12 season, football fans are more aware than ever of the labor conflicts that can spoil a sport. Technically, there isn't actually a union for NFL players at the moment, as they have decertified the NFLPA as part of a legal strategy to take their issues to the courts. On the surface, it's billionaires fighting millionaires over a share of billions in revenue, and, sure, loathing both sides is easier than beating an MLB drug test. But, in 1956, NFL players had better reasons for taking legal action against their employer.

The constant impact of one of the most violent, heavy-hitting sports reduces its top players to an average career of only 3.3 years. And before there was a union, players weren't paid if they missed a game with an injury. Players were responsible for maintaining their uniforms and equipment, and they didn't receive any per diem money when traveling. In 1956, convinced they were being swindled by team owners, the players on the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns formed a union. Other players around the league soon got on board, including legends such as Don Shula and Frank Gifford. The players successfully forced the league to address their grievances, as well as establish an official minimum salary and a pension plan. (For more information on the recent actions of the NFL players, check out The Money Behind The NFL Players' Lawsuit.)

The National Basketball Association
Basketball fans are also facing a long winter this year, as the NBA Players Association (NBAPA) is expecting to sit out the 2011-12 season, as it battles franchise owners over a greater share of the league's revenue. The union is working hard to ensure that these players don't squander their seven-figure earnings, but prior to the NBAPA, the world's best basketball players didn't count exorbitant wealth among their problems.

According to the NBAPA, "Before the union's inception … there was no pension plan, no per diem, no minimum wage, no health benefits and the average player salary was $8,000." In 1954, the league's top player, Bob Cousy, worked to organize other influential players around the league and they threatened to pull out of the 1955 all-star game if NBA president Maurice Podoloff refused their demands. This brought some concessions from the owners and eventually led to official bargaining between the league and the union in 1957. Some early victories for the union included a $7 per diem, moving expenses for players traded mid-season, and a bigger cut of playoff revenues. Strangely, they did not demand to wear longer shorts. (The legend Michael Jordan had few money worries. For a break down on his numbers, read Michael Jordan: By The Numbers.)

The Bottom Line
The pioneers of these leagues fought powerful millionaires and risked their professional careers to ensure that future players in these leagues would be well compensated and cared for beyond their playing careers. The hundred-million-dollar contracts of Alex Rodriquez, Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning and Alex Ovechkin suggest that the founding fathers of these unions have gotten more than they ever hoped for. (With professional sports making millions of dollars, why do some of these teams file for bankruptcy? To learn more check out 4 Reasons Pro Sports Teams File For Bankruptcy.)

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