A black history month sport’s close-out.

The History of African-Americans and Sports Labor Unions

Currently Major League Baseball is sitting in an elongated lockout and is in danger of not starting its season on time, and on the players side of negotiating is Tony Clark an African-American former player for the Detroit Tigers.  He is the head of the MLB players union, and is under pressure after a couple of not so great negotiations over the pandemic return to action and the last time the Players and owners had a labor negotiation. 

Tony Clark is not the first black labor leader in major league sports. He’s one of many who have fought for more benefits and pay for leader.

Of course there’s Curt Flood who wasn’t an actual labor leader but his fight with Major League Baseball over the Reserve Clause is what ultimately gave us free agency, there’s an article on the site about Flood if you’d like more information.  But one of the other early leaders in labor activism was Gene Upshaw a hall of famer with the Oakland Raiders who went on to become the NFL Players Association Executive Director. 

He led a 57 day player strike in the 1980’s that established a new severance pay plan, a medial bill of rights, and a guaranteed expenditure for player costs that significantly increased the percentage  of league and club revenues that went to the players.  Upshaw championed the cause of creative free agency in the NFL and players went on strike again in 1987 with him at the helm as the Executive Director of the NFLPA. 

The players strike did not achieve the goal of free agency but a lawsuit against the NFL eventually did. And very much the same route that Curt Flood took with baseball in the early 70’s.

In 1993 a settlement was reached and players obtained the right to free agency and a guaranteed share of club revenues for the first time in NFLPA history.  Upshaw also achieved a 401K program for players, a player annuity program, healthcare reimbursement accounts for vested players, and a league wide incentive pay system known as “performance based pay.”

The Hall of Famer also established NFL Players Inc, which generates millions of dollars in group licensing revenue for the players each year.

Another major force in labor has been DeMaurice Smith who has been the NFL’s Player Union leader since 2009, and he’s been reelected in 2012, 2015 an will remain for one final term as being voted back in by players by a slim margin.  Some players were upset about an extra regular season game being added to the schedule as well as extra playoff teams. 

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith addresses the media on February 09, 2022 at the NFL Network’s Champions Field at the NFL Media Building on the SoFi Stadium campus in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

During Smith’s tenure player salaries, revenue share has increased, and there’s been a much higher focus on player safety.  The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement included a rookie salary cap, where savings were allocated to veteran players. 

Smith’s name also came up as former Raiders Coach Jon Gruden was found in an audit of emails from the investigation of the Washington Football team, where Gruden made crude and racist comments about Smith during a the 2011 labor negotiation.

Last but not least we have to recognize Michele Roberts who was the head of the NBPA, the NBA’s player union.  She was the first female head of a major sports union, and guided the players through changes like adding the play in games to enter the playoffs.

Roberts presided over the NBA playoffs in the bubble in 2020, and sorted through player anger and unrest over the racial reckoning in 2020, and figuring out testing and Covid-19 protocols as the game returned after the pandemic.

Fighting for player rights, safety, healthcare is something that African Americans have had a major part in 3 of the United States 4 major sports.  I expect this legacy to continue, and everyone should know that we are not just dribbling balls, and scoring touchdowns, black folks are working to secure the futures of these young men off the field as well.

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