Solidarity with Athletes

There was a time in this country when 40 percent of all workers were unionized. There was a time when every major newspaper had a reporter for its labor beat. There was a time when “class consciousness” didn’t mean that the wealthy class was conscious of getting more tax breaks.

As unionization and strike activity have dried up, it’s critical for progressives to join the two high-profile labor battles on the horizon in professional sports. NBA and NFL owners both are poised to lock out their players in 2011.

It’s tempting to write off sports labor battles as “billionaires versus millionaires.” And there is no question it’s obscene that we live in a world where A-Rod pulls in a thousand times more than what a teacher makes, but we need to recognize that the players deserve our support.

Pro sports owners are the filthiest of filthy rich, and no exception to the expression that behind every great fortune is a great crime. Billionaire Paul Allen, who co-founded the rapacious monopoly known as Microsoft, owns the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Ford family owns the Detroit Lions. The Fords stained the history books with involvement in everything from union bashing to Nazi collaboration. And don’t forget the former owner of the Texas Rangers, an amiable fellow with loftier ambitions named George W. Bush.

Without a doubt, the players in the major leagues of sport make serious bank. The average salary in baseball is more than $3 million. In football, it is just over $1 million, far more than a lot of people see in a lifetime. But this was not always so.

In 1967, the average baseball salary was $19,000 a year. That same year, the average NFL salary was just $8,000. A typical athlete in 1967 worked in the off-season. Not cushy jobs but jobs that reflected the hardscrabble background of many of the players. One crew of linebackers worked summers in a quarry. Take a second to imagine Peyton Manning crushing rocks, and one can see how much things have changed.

So how did the athletes manage to get the huge salaries we see today? They organized. Yes, the industry expanded and created a bigger pie, but the boom periods were the ’20s and the ’50s, and didn’t automatically mean higher salaries. Instead, it took union power in the late ’60s and early ’70s to change how the sports pie would be cut.

Pro athletes battled a tradition of company-run unions, and fought to end the reserve clause, which bound a player to the team that drafted him with no rights to go anywhere else. When athletes won the right of free agency, they used their solidarity—and the power of the strike—to extract wealth from the bosses.

This year in particular, athletes deserve our support. The NFL and NBA bosses might unilaterally shut the doors in the name of pay cuts. Such a lockout would have huge consequences.

“It’s not just us that gets locked out,” DeMaurice Smith, the new head of the NFL Players Association, told me. “Every stadium worker. Every waiter or waitress picking up an extra shift at the nearby restaurants. Anyone selling concessions while people tailgate. Each and every one of these hard-working folks gets locked out as well.”

Smith’s right. The fact is, a victory for the players is a victory for all of us.

And the actions by pro athletes have the potential to put the issue of labor back at the center of American life, where it belongs. Then we’ll really have reason to cheer our favorite athletes.

Dave Zirin is the author of the new book “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.”