Leadership and Solidarity Matter in Sports Off the Field

Labor Organizing

Casper     There was a fascinating discussion recently about why professional basketball players in the National Basketball Association were able to speak freely and publicly about issues, including race and politics, while the manly men of the National Football League were constantly being cowed into silence.  The reporter for the New York Times spent a lot of time on the back and forth, pros and cons.

There are of course similarities between the two dominant professional leagues.  Both are owned by mostly conservative very rich people, so that doesn’t explain the difference.  Both have longstanding unions, so that isn’t the difference either.  Both leagues are composed of extraordinary athletes who are predominately African-American, so that doesn’t solve the puzzle either.

The reporter rested his case on the fact that the NBA had leaned more towards promoting the brand of individual players, while the NFL had focused more on teams citing the 40 million followers of LeBron James versus the 4 million followers of Tom Brady among other things.  That’s just not persuasive to me.  The NFL nationally and locally has made big whoops of the Brady’s, the Mannings, Drew Brees, and others as spokespeople for the league and the team.  It has done less for its African-American stars in my view.  The NFL has plainly been behind on race.  It isn’t a coincidence that all the players I just named are white quarterbacks.  It took decades before the NFL embraced African-Americans as quarterbacks, frequently seeing them and their style of play as unsuitable for their sport in implicit racism.

Coming off of our Local 100 leadership conference, it was hard not to see the real difference starting with leadership of the respective unions.  The reporter, John Branch, made the point that the head of the union for the NBA players was Chris Paul and that the executive board of the union looked like a future list for the Hall of Fame including James, Curry, Paul, Durant, Anthony, and others.  In the NFL, Drew Brees from the Saints has consistently been a union leader, but often its more common to see rank-and-file players in such roles and not the superstars.  This is a perfect example of a failure of leadership with the stars sending the message that they are more important that the rest of the players and that the contract and the union are something for the journeymen and not the big dogs.  The experience of leadership and understanding of the value of the union and its ability to protect them, allows them freer expressions individually where the weaker solidarity has isolated Colin Kaepernick in his NFL protests.

In team sports the value of the team itself is a constant refrain from the first time one plays ball throughout the professional ranks, but a team is about solidarity, just as a union is.  One NFL player after another in their short career speaks of their work as a business, rather than a team.  Michael Jordan during his NBA career set the same role model of me first, team whatever that dominates the NFL still.  The new leaders in the NBA have changed the culture of the sport, while the NFL has made a mockery of team proving that they need to learn something about solidarity from the basketball stars and their teams.  There’s a mountain of difference there.