The History Behind Labor Strikes In Pro Sports

By Greg McFarlane | December 13, 2011 AAA
The History Behind Labor Strikes In Pro Sports



For decades, labor/management issues in pro sports weren't an issue. Players played at the leisure of the owners, and were welcome to find other lines of work if they didn't like the conditions. In retrospect, it's astonishing how few rights players enjoyed. The infamous "reserve clause," once common to all major sports, stated that even once a player's contract expired, he was still bound to his team if he wanted to play said sport. In the 1940s, National Football League players played exhibition games without pay. You know, professional football; the game in which players risk grievous injury on almost every down. In 1957, when National Hockey League players tried to form a union, the owners promptly busted it, keeping the players quiet for a decade. The one player who did most of the legwork - Detroit's Ted Lindsay - was immediately traded, even though he was at the apex of his career and would eventually be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (For related reading, see Unions: Do They Help Or Hurt Workers?)
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In late November, the National Basketball Association and its players' association ended a five-month labor war. The sides agreed to split revenue between themselves in suitable proportions, and will soon begin a truncated 66-game season. When the playoffs roll around, it'll be as if the lockout had never occurred.

NBA Lockouts
If you're skeptical of that, understand that little long-term damage accrued from the NBA's only previous work stoppage (excluding two off-season lockouts from the mid-'90s, one of which lasted merely an afternoon.) In the winter of 1998-99, the league wanted to cap individual salaries and team payrolls. The union wanted an increase in the minimum salary, which was what almost every fourth player was earning. By the time the lockout started eating away at the regular season, an arbitrator ruled that teams didn't have to pay any "guaranteed" contracts. Now losing not just income but leverage, the players weakened. The day before the season's "drop-dead" date, the sides reached an agreement. A 50-game season began a month later. Thus, the 2011 lockout led to the cancellation of only half as many games as its 1998-99 antecedent did.

Baseball was the first major sport with a labor shutdown, and has had eight in total. However, that includes three lockouts and a strike that all took place during spring training, plus an in-season strike in 1985 that was resolved within 48 hours and resulted in no missed games. Baseball's first work stoppage occurred in 1972. Players refused to start the season on time, demanding increased pension plan contributions and salary arbitration. The owners relented, and within two weeks the season began. They never bothered rescheduling the cancellations, which led to teams playing unequal numbers of games. The Detroit Tigers thus won their division by half a game over the Boston Red Sox, who'd played one fewer game yet never got a chance to make it up.

Nine years later, a far more damaging strike tore through the heart of the season, wiping out its middle third. This time, the demands from each side had become more complex. Players had been granted free agency a few years earlier, but the existing setup required any team that gained a free agent to compensate that player's old team - thus diminishing the value (and the very definition) of free agency. (For more, read Pro Sports Unions: Do They Help Or Hurt?)

Once that was resolved, the water bailed and the holes plugged, the 1981 season was split into halves with the pre- and post-strike division leaders meeting in the postseason. Within a year, attendance had rebounded as if nothing had happened. But this wouldn't be Major League Baseball's most devastating work stoppage. For sheer magnitude, it's hard to imagine anything surpassing the 1994-95 strike.

The Worst of the Worst
In early 1994, the owners attempted to cap salaries as part of any future labor agreement. The season began without a hitch, but by midsummer the union had set a strike date. And on August 12, with seven weeks left in the season, the players exercised their leverage and walked out. Desperate to play the season to a conclusion, but not desperate enough to accede, management pulled the plug a month later. The 1994 season thus consisted of nothing more than 1600 de facto exhibition games, and the World Series was canceled for the first time in 90 years. Even having the winter to cool off didn't make an appreciable difference: congressmen and senators introduced bills to resolve the strike, and the president himself ordered the sides to resume bargaining, all with no luck.

The following spring, the theater got absurd. The owners hired strikebreakers for the exhibition season, excluding the one owner who used to be a labor attorney (Baltimore's Peter Angelos). One manager (Detroit's Sparky Anderson) refused to manage strikebreakers, and at least two teams (Baltimore and Toronto) operated in jurisdictions that forbade employing them. Finally, the day before the scheduled start of the 1995 season, the owners received a preliminary injunction and the dispute ended. Three weeks later a shortened 144-game season began, and baseball hasn't had a work stoppage since.

A Page From the NFL
Among the four major sports, the National Football League has suffered the least from labor disputes. Not counting a skirmish in the summer of 1974, resolved before training camps opened, the NFL's first labor stoppage was in 1982. Two weeks into the season, the union's executive director demanded 55% of league revenues for the players. However, by obsessing over relative minutiae, the executive director incurred the wrath of the players. Several teams voted unanimously to fire him, and after seven weeks, play resumed with what then became a nine-game season. The sides signed an agreement, and you can probably figure out how long it was valid for by the date of the next strike. (To learn more, check out The Rise Of Labor Unions In Pro Sports.)

In 1987, again two weeks into the season, the players struck. This time, the major issue was true free agency. And this time, the owners activated an unprecedented backup plan. After a week of missed games, the owners hired strikebreakers for Week Four. An assortment of training camp castoffs, Canadian Football League refugees, and even a future hip-hop mogul (Suge Knight played two games at defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams) offered an approximation of pro football.

Maintaining the season meant that the owners were still entitled to TV revenue. And given the small salaries they were paying to the strikebreakers, the owners were actually making more money than before. With every passing week, more and more established players crossed the picket lines, and by week six they had all returned.

By 2011, pro football had metamorphosed from popular sport into national obsession. That spring, the NFL's collective bargaining agreement had expired. The owners attempted to implement some draconian new measures, including an extended season (two additional chances to suffer a career-ending injury!) and a tight salary cap for rookies. The union decertified, several players filed an antitrust suit, and the league locked them and their teammates out. Within a month, a judge invalidated the lockout. By late July both sides agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, too late to save the first exhibition game, but guaranteeing a decade of labor peace.

NHL Woes
The National Hockey League's labor history has included a couple of labor disputes with devastating losses. Late in the 1991-92 season, the players struck at the optimal time, given how much revenue the playoffs generate. Wanting a loosening of free agency and increased playoff bonuses, the players stood their ground for 10 days. The owners agreed to the players' demands on the condition that the regular season be extended by four games. The players concurred, the lost games were made up, and the sides signed a two-year agreement.

By late 1994, that agreement having expired, the owners tried to administer a salary cap to a sport with high individual salaries and little TV revenue to pay them out of. The players understandably balked, and shortly before the season was scheduled to begin, it didn't. The lockout continued throughout the winter, even passing the league's self-imposed drop-dead date. Finally, in January the sides reached a hasty agreement. A 48-game season would begin a week later. For fans of nihilism, this was nothing compared to what would happen a decade later.

The 1994 collective bargaining agreement stayed in force until late summer of 2004. At that time, the NHL was committing 76% of revenues to player salaries (a number doubtless sobering to current NBA players, whom the league offered just 47% of its revenues to.) The NHL owners threw several demands at the players - hard salary cap, collective salary negotiation, luxury tax on high-spending teams - none of which stuck. Negotiations continued until February of 2005, and with the sides still several million dollars apart, the 2004-05 season was canceled before it even began; a development unprecedented (and so far, unrepeated) in sports history. The following July the sides reached an agreement, each in far worse financial shape than when the lockout had begun 11 months earlier.

The Bottom Line
The knee-jerk public response to sports labor issues is "millionaires fighting with billionaires," but obviously it's never that simple. Nor should fans be so quick to anger. At the very least, if businesses are going to fight with their employees, better it be entertainment businesses than ones that produce something vital. (For more, check out The Money Behind The NFL Players' Lawsuit.)

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