Given today's multi-million-dollar deals for athletes, it's easy to forget 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.
These athletes were treated as pieces of property with no rights to pensions, healthcare benefits, or even lunch money for road games. As in most cases, their labor unions were born out of unfair working conditions and inadequate wages.
Today's pro athletes enjoy all of the 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 talent provided.
- In 1955, hockey legend Tim Horton had to work a summer job to make ends meet.
- NFL players were responsible for maintaining their own uniforms.
- MLB players didn't win the free agency system until 1975.
The National Hockey League
Just before the formation of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) in 1967, it was reported that most players were paid about $10,000 to $15,000 per year, with no pension or healthcare plans. It was common for NHL players 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 today's popular Canadian coffee-and-doughnut franchise, broke his leg in a game. If a player missed a game, and Horton missed several, he wasn't paid. With no healthcare plan and no income, the Horton family struggled to pay the bills. After the injury, Horton wasn't as effective. The Leafs' management cried "indifferent play" and cut his salary the following year.
Such treatment inspired Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings to rally the players to form a union in the late 1950s. In an attempt to cripple the movement, the Red Wings traded Lindsay to Chicago, where he was less effective in organizing key players. Other influential players across the league were also traded away or banished to the minor leagues.
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 stop punishing players for being members.
For the 2019-2020 season, the average salary for an NHL player ranged from $1.54 million, for the Toronto Maple Leafs, to $3.32 million, for the Minnesota Wild.
The minimum wage was $700,000.
In 2021, the average MLB salary is $4.17 million, a decline of 4.8% from the previous full season.
Major League Baseball
Baseball has been a big business in America for a long time, 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.
They started organizing way back in 1885 with the creation of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball players. The players didn't just want to increase their salaries. More importantly, they wanted to end the reserve clause that essentially gave owners the right to control where players could play.
Their fortunes didn't really change until 1965 when a group of players hired Marvin Miller, the former economist for the United Steelworkers of America economist. Miller 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. The newly empowered players began a series of lawsuits against MLB to challenge the reserve clause, with victory finally coming in 1975, opening the door to free agency.
The average MLB salary for the 2021 MLB season is $4.17 million. That's actually a decline of 4.8% from the previous full season.
Then there are the blockbuster deals. Multi-year deals worth more than $300 million have been signed by Francisco Lindor of the New York Mets, Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, to name just a few.
The National Football League
In 1956, convinced they were being swindled by team owners, players on the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns formed a union. Other players around the league soon got on board, including legends Don Shula and Frank Gifford.
At the time, players weren't paid if they missed a game due to an injury. They were responsible for maintaining their uniforms and equipment, and they didn't receive any per diem money when traveling.
NFL careers, then and now, are brutal and short. The average career span of an NFL player is 3.3 years.
The players' union successfully forced the league to address their grievances as well as to establish an official minimum salary and a pension plan.
For 2021, the minimum salary for an NFL player with a one-year contract was $660,000.
The average annual salary for the 2019-2020 season ranged from a low of $2.05 million for a Miami Dolphins player to $4.71 million for an Atlanta Falcons player.
The National Basketball Association
In 1954, the top player in the NBA, Bob Cousy, brought together other influential players to create the NBA Players Association (NBAPA). They threatened to pull out of the 1955 all-star game if NBA president Maurice Podoloff refused their demands.
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.
The players also got a series of raises. Before the union was created, the average player salary was $8,000 and there was no minimum wage.
For the 2019-2020 season, the average NBA salary was $8.32 million. The median salary was $4 million.
The stars make much, much more. Up to $43 million for Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, as of the 2020-2021 season.