An ominous headline graced the title page of the June 10, 1967 issue of The Sporting News: Athlete Union? STORM BREWING:
The Major League Baseball Player’s Association was already 14 years old by 1967, although it was just the union’s second year under Marvin Miller (and thus just its second year with real teeth). But the storm brewing was not just about Miller and the MLBPA’s call for increased minimum salaries. As Joe King wrote:
“In the background, however, there is a new factor which may have bearing on player-management relations in hockey, basketball and football as well as baseball.
That is the conference among representatives of the four pro teams sports and their lawyers inaugurated in April, continued in May and scheduled for July.
The goal is professed to be an examination of common problems and exploration of cooperative efforts to surmount such difficulties.
Specifically, the players and their counsel have taken up salaries, pensions, working conditions, the standard contract and the reserve and option clauses.”
Representatives from the National Hockey League, National Football League, American Football League, National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association joined Miller in these meetings. It appears to be the closest America ever came to producing a united athletes union, rather than the individual league unions we see today.
In the vastly more pro-union past, this is an idea that has cropped up a few times. In 1959, world middleweight boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson told the press “he hopes to form a union of all professional athletes.” Robinson said he talked with American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president George Meany about the idea. The union, according to Robinson, would “include athletes from every sport, not just boxing. And it’ll be under a national charter.”
Nothing ever happened with Robinson’s idea. Although Robinson characterized his talks with Meany as positive — “The more I talk with him, the more interested he gets.” — it’s unlikely the sentiment was shared. Meany said in 1968, “High priced athletes need a good lawyer more than a good union,” and that athletes have little in common with the typical union member. As Victor Riesel wrote in 1980, after Meany retired as head of the AFL-CIO, the labor leader thought of sports unionizing efforts as “fatheaded.”
Thus, with Robinson’s plan at a dead end, things remained calm until 1966. That February, Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, perhaps the most recognizable name in American labor history, announced his union “has a plan underway to unionize professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey and any other major league sports.” Hoffa said professional athletes have the same problems as the typical union man: “Both want job security and compensation for their work.” One of Hoffa’s assistants attempted to organize members of the Detroit Lions, but the assistant said the players “turned him down cold.”
More importantly, though, the idea of an all-sports union was out there. The next step was the ominous meetings described by The Sporting News as the brewing storm.
Miller briefly described the meetings in his autobiography, A Whole Different Ball Game. He was convinced to join the meetings by Browns defensive back Bernie Parrish, who was turned onto the idea by a Teamsters representative.
“The reps from these other sports had very little conception of the way management operated. As you might have guessed, the most misinformed of all was Jack Kemp, the head of the AFL Players Association. The Buffalo quarterback sounded as if he had been brainwashed (although given his natural political bent, his brain didn’t require a lot of “washing”) by the commissioner’s office. Not only was he antiunion, he seemed to have no idea that the organization he headed was a union. He spent considerable time showing that he was more concerned about the owners’ profits than the players’ welfare. Several months later, Kemp damaged the players by accepting a substandard contract on behalf of the American Football League Players Association; it contained terms rejected by the NFL Players Association. After his playing days, Kemp became a U.S. congressman from Buffalo, and in 1988 he sought the Republican presidential nomination. He was a better quarterback than he was a presidential candidate, but he never made the Super Bowl in either league.
The meeting accomplished very little. The philosophical differences, especially in football, were so great that when the elected player reps tried to hold meetings, various factions formed and met separately in different rooms.
The idea of a superior organization was dropped. A measure of cooperation among the players’ associations became possible in later years, but for the time being we tried to forge ahead without them.”(pp. 159-160)
It took until 1979 — George Meany’s final days in office as AFL-CIO president — for the AFL-CIO to grant a charter to a pan-athletic union, titled the Federation of Professional Athletes. But by that point, the MLBPA was its own entity. The NBA and NHL decided to go in that direction as well, leaving just the NFLPA and the North American Soccer League’s (NASL) players union as the only two under the umbrella.
Now, the Federation of Professional Athletes is little but another name for the NFL Players Association. From the website of the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO: “The Federation of Professional Athletes is the umbrella organization that includes the National Football League Players Association — the officially recognized union for NFL players.” And that’s pretty much it.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the joint union idea failed. As Miller said, there were large differences in ideology just among the representatives at their first meetings. Numerous players in baseball and the other leagues were against the idea. The Sporting News, often a mouthpiece for ownership dating back to the friendship between J.G. Taylor Spink and first baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, trumpeted Phillies first baseman Bill White‘s staunchly anti-union beliefs.
“We baseball players, not just Negro players, have no need for a union. I know I don’t have to line up shoulder to shoulder with anyone else to fight a battle, and I don’t believe any of us has to. All any type of union would do is hurt us.”
The meteoric rise in player salaries since Miller headed up the MLB Players Association would disagree, but White’s sentiments weren’t alone, and were just one of many obstacles in the way of an all-encompassing athletes union.
But it’s fascinating to think of what could have happened if such a union was formed. Would Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption have been challenged? Would the United States Football League (USFL) have been able to challenge the National Football League? Would minor league players have joined this union as well? What about collegiate athletes? Such an organization could have changed the face of professional sports in America. Instead it stands as one of the great sports labor “what if?” questions of the last 50 years.