Wednesday’s ruling from the National Labor Review Board granting Northwestern University football players the right to form a union as employees may be the biggest sports story of the new Millennium. ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson called it a “a historic first step in a process that, together with litigation against the NCAA and legislation in Congress, could change the face of college sports.” The Nation’s Dave Zirin wrote “the established order in the sports world has been shaken to its foundation.”
If there is an analog to the NLRB decision in baseball history, it comes in 1976, when MLB arbitrator Peter Seitz granted free agent status to pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. This was the final blow struck to defeat the reserve clause. The ruling left every major league player yet to sign a contract in 1976 eligible for free agency by the end of the season; those who had signed could be reserved one final time in 1977 before becoming free agents. Essentially, the whole league hit the free market at once, the exact kind of chaotic situation necessary to force real change.
By July, the players and owners agreed to a system resembling today’s: players were able to declare for free agency after accruing six years of service time, and a salary arbitration process was officially established. The measure required a simple majority of MLB owners to pass, which was easily met with a 17-7 vote. But the resistance was palpable. August A. Busch declared, after casting his no vote, that the owners “have lost the war.” Charlie Finley, a recurring character in this column, called the agreement “a triple-edged sword — I don’t like it.”
The next decade or so saw the rise of the player, with salaries jumping first into the hundreds of thousands and then into the dreaded millions. The MLB average salary jumped from $51,000 in 1976 to $185,000 in 1981 to $412,520 in 1986 to just over $1 million in 1992. And when money begins flowing like that,people get scared.
I’ve covered the free agent scare in depth in this column. As owners saw player salaries skyrocket, owners and writers alike became worried the game as it existed would become unstable, that the inflation of player salaries would lead to the collapse of Major League Baseball. MLB leaders have made similar assertions since the early 1900s, when challenges from the Federal League and others threatened the league’s anti-trust exemption.
Nine of MLB’s 26 teams were sold between 1979 and 1981. In just those three years, baseball’s average salary more than doubled, from $114,000 to $242,000. And although those franchises were selling, they were selling for more money than ever. The Yankees sold for less than $10 million in the early 1970s. By the 1990s, franchise values had already jumped into the $100 million range.
Those concerned about the fate of college sports due to unionization worry about the cost of paying players. Even if we ignore that pay-for-play was not part of the Northwestern players’ demands, MLB’s skyrocketing revenues following the death of the reserve clause follows an exact opposite trend.
Of course, there are huge differences in the structure of these leagues — the NCAA operates in a supposedly academic environment, while MLB is and has always been explicitly and purely for-profit. But a look at the absurd salaries for coaches and athletic administrators and the cost of state-of-the-art athletic facilities at NCAA schools suggest the money is there, it just isn’t going to the players.
Still, NCAA schools and administrators will likely make the claim anyway: paying athletes would be unrealistic given athletic budgets, or it will ruin non-revenue sports, or it will mean the death of women’s sports on college campuses, or the tax implications of considering athletes employees will somehow ruin the deal. These are the same kind of arguments August Herrman, National Baseball Commission president, ran out in 1912, and there’s no reason to expect it to stop now.
As Miller said in 1976, as the owners and players were negotiating the system to replace the reserve clause: “Their public relations campaign creates a lot of problem. We have to spend a lot of tiem correcting the misinformation that the owners put out.” Expect misinformation by the truckloads from the NCAA.
Additionally, it seems likely the same racism that surrounded the first black baseball players to earn huge contracts (like Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew) will surround the largely black athletes that make up NCAA football and basketball teams. Much of the fear surrounding free agency was clearly related to the large sums of money diverted from white owners into the bank accounts of athletes of color. Perhaps the nastiest example — or at least the most visibly nasty example — came from Twins owner Calvin Griffith, but examples were plentiful.
1976 also saw the NBA make great strides in collective bargaining, and it could be argued that unions in professional sports were never as powerful. “We think we can now sit down at the bargaining table and talk on an equal basis,” Larry Fleisher, NBA Players Association counsel told the AP. Marvin Miller expressed a similar sentiment. “When you’ve changed the basis of a relationship so that it’s now contractual between equal parties, then you’ve raised the dignity of the players. And that’s something that will last forever.”
At the time, the NFL Players Association was fighting against the league, the last of the four major American sports to hold out against collective bargaining with its players. “We’re fighting for our dignity,” NFLPA executive director Ed Garvey said. This is what union leaders like Garvey and Miller have said for years. Like the baseball players before them, the College Athletes Players Association merely want their vitally important role in the billion dollar industry of college sports recognized.
It is a fight for money, and for better health procedures, and for reasonable working hours. When those in charge so clearly have the resources to provide what the players are asking for, like the baseball owners did nearly 40 years ago, those fights are also fights for dignity. College athletes are in for a fight. But it is a fight that has been won before, and with the first step out of the way, there is room for optimism that the dignity of college athletes will finally be recognized.