Volume 51, Issue 1: Winter 2017

The athletes’ revolt

Photo by Brook Ward

By the time San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a stand against oppression by taking a knee during the national anthem, it will have been clear to even the most casual sports fan that we are in the midst of an athletes’ revolt. Not since the 1960s have so many athletes been willing to speak truth to power. And like in that decade of pro- test, the revolt mirrors an upsurge in social movement activism beyond the playing field. Here’s a brief — and no doubt incomplete — timeline of the revolution thus far.

Let’s start in 2014. The latest round of resistance kicked off when Northwestern University football players announced their intention to form the first labour union for college athletes and get their rightful piece of the NCAA pie. Although the National Labor Relations Board has since blocked their efforts, the actions of Northwestern’s football team brought college sport into direct conversation with social movement struggles beyond the floodlights. As sports journalist Dave Zirin noted, the players’ struggle for economic justice cannot be detached from the Fight for 15: “The universities are afraid that if the football players can unionize, then the graduate teachers, the custodial staff, the work-study students and the cafeteria workers will all say, ‘If they can be a recognized union, then why not us?’”

Only a few months after Northwestern hit the headlines, the racist rants of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, became public. Players on the Clippers and Golden State Warriors threatened a wildcat strike, demanding NBA commissioner Adam Silver ban Sterling from the league. Silver complied. The incident was a precursor to pro basketball players’ acts of solidarity with the emerging Black Lives Matter movement.

In summer 2014, former minor league baseball players launched a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The lawsuit alleged that MLB franchises and their minor-league affiliates have failed to pay minor leaguers (who are not unionized) the minimum wage, in addition to violating other basic labour protections. In October, a similar lawsuit was launched against the Canadian Hockey League, while the UNIFOR union announced its intention to organize major junior hockey.

In December 2014, a number of high-profile NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, referencing the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man killed by a New York City police officer. Other athletes sported similar shirts during warm-ups in solidarity with protests that stemmed from the failure to indict the officer who killed Garner. Later that same month, five St. Louis Rams players took the field during a game against the Oakland Raiders with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose made iconic by the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

In solidarity with campus protests against racism and a university administration tone-deaf to the concerns of students of colour, black players on the University of Missouri’s football team went on strike. The rest of the team and coaching staff soon joined them. The university’s annual revenue from athletics is in excess of $80 million — the bulk of which comes from the football program. With the university on the hook for $1 million should the strike result in the cancellation of an upcoming game, the university’s president resigned.

In August, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in a pre-season NFL game. The 49ers quarterback stated: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” Other players joined Kaepernick, and the anthem protest spread well beyond the NFL.

In December, the Canadian women’s national soccer team announced its intention to unionize. The women are paid substantially less than the men’s team and have said that their fight is about “equal pay for equal work.” A similar dispute in U.S. soccer led the women’s national team to threaten strike action in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics.

Added to this list is the recently launched UFC fighters’ union, with rumblings that triathletes, tennis players, and NBA minor leaguers will soon organize.

So whether it’s the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, or pay equity, working athletes are realizing the power of collective action in struggles for social justice. A common thread is the increasing willingness of players to back their demands with threats of withdrawing their labour — whether not giving interviews or a full-out strike — and more generally, breaking the rules which govern their conduct.

In the billion-dollar sports industry, players seem aware of the power of their voices and their labour. The director of the NBA players’ association, Michele Roberts, put it best when she said: “There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what is. There. Would. Be. No. Money.” With Donald Trump in the White House and the right on the rise, a growing number of athletes know which side of history they intend to be on.