Unions Make Us Strong

The interesting thing as the MSU sex abuse scandals are developing, is how often so many different corners of the media world have tried to impose a ‘savior’ on the situation. Feminist minded people want Judge Aquilina’s sympathy for and fierce protection of victims to be the new standard we judge all judges by. The Atlantic went so far as to call her court room ‘transformative justice‘ and the meme of her tossing aside Larry Nassar’s letter has gone viral.

Michiganders are (not unironically) calling for Governor Rick Snyder to force MSU president and board to step down, fans are calling for the NCAA to ‘do something,’ and most (myself included) are wondering why the FBI hasn’t stepped in to do real investigating.

Nobody knows what to do with a scandal that is so all encompassing, that has so many different institutions in positions of culpability, that has gone on unchecked for so many decades. We want more judges like Judge Aquilinia, we want people to ‘listen’ to girls and women that speak up, we want victims to speak up–a few of us want boys and men to learn different ways of having sex. Almost everybody is calling for as many people as possible to be punished.

The one thing I keep getting stuck on, though, is how few calls we’re seeing for the empowerment of girls and women specifically as producers of labor. That is, next to nobody is treating the MSU case generally and the Larry Nassar case specifically, as a reason that justifies, in fact, demands, that non-professional athletes be unionized.

During the Nassar sentencing, over and over again, girls and women testified about the conditions of the gyms they spent upwards of 35 hours a week in. The physical and emotional abuse that coaches subjected them to. The contracts forcing them to submit to physical treatments or lose their place on the team. The trips without parents. The camps with no access to parents or guardians. The endless practices with no advocate in the gym, training or locker rooms. The endless practices girls with broken bones, torn muscles, unhealed bodies were pressured to participate in. The endless practices that girls as young as nine and ten years old were pressured to participate in.

What would we say about a child being forced to work at a fast food restaurant for 30+ hours a week with her back broken in four spots that was directly caused by the job? Would we be ok with that? Our child labor laws tell us no, we’re not.

So why is it ok if it’s being done in the name of a sport?

Sports are not just ‘sports’ anymore. Sports are an industry that from the time an athlete enters their first club, through until the time they end their ‘careers’ requires a massive investment in. Gone are the days that athletes experimented in gym class or joined a school team on a whim. Club sports have cornered the market on what used to be kids playing in the street or at the local YMCA. Many young people get so invested in the rigors of club sports, they even skip their high school season under the guise of how much of a ‘challenge’ club sports are.

Kids dream of Olympics and being recruited. Parents dream of free rides through colleges and maybe a house when Bobby makes the NFL team. They plunk out the thousands of dollars to enter their kids into the upper echelons of club sports, where they are given access to the chance to reach their dreams. You can’t achieve your dreams mucking around on a high school team coached by an unpaid math teacher.

The ‘chance to achieve your dream’ is a powerful narrative, one that is built into the fabric of US society. If you just work hard enough, you’ll get there. The sports industry especially embraces this narrative-Do you believe in miracles?? yells Al Michaels during the hockey game where a few scrappy American college kids took on the red force of communist hockey, and won. The ‘miracle’ is that hard work and dedication can really over come anything, lack of training resources, money, even the communists.

But lost in this narrative of ‘hard work’ and ‘achieving your dream’ is the reality that we glimpsed at the Nassar sentencing. Kids are paying thousands of dollars to labor in violent and abusive conditions to create a product that makes their clubs millions. Club sports are a $15 billion–yes *billion* dollar industry. On Olympic years, when kids get to see the Fierce Five undo the competition or Michael Phelps singing the national anthem for the 14th time, enrollment in club sports spikes.

When an individual does well, her club/home team is recognized, her club/team coach often gets as many interview requests as she does. And as we saw with Larry Nassar and MSU–that Olympic connection then becomes a powerful recruiting tool. As MSU gymnastic coach, Kathie Klages said in her recruitment letters–We have Larry Nassar!

But every single child, whether they make it to Olympic gold or not, are not just working for free–they’re paying to work. By the time those that go to the Olympics or they get recruited for top teams or they finally finally finally make it to the bigs, they’ve been paying to work for decades. The vast majority, who won’t even be recruited at a class D school, have been paying to work with no reward at all.

And yet, whether or not they make it big, the names of their clubs becomes permanently attached to their resumes. Any success they create, whether Olympic gold or just getting accepted to a good college, is another opportunity for the club to advertise and recruit. I’ve seen just as many clubs talking about ‘their girls’ being top notch students that wind up in elite colleges, as I’ve seen clubs advertising Olympic connections. Implicit in their recruiting efforts is the promise that a documented long term dedication to a single sport ‘looks good’ on an application and plays as much of a factor in getting girls into Harvard as their coaching plays in getting girls recruited by a Big Ten team. Whether or not that’s true, club/home teams using the success of the girls to recruit in more business means that it’s not just that these kids are paying to work, they’re paying to ultimately become a powerful marketing tool for their club/home teams.

Non-professional athletes have limited power–the ones with the most power are the ones on high revenue sports (like basketball or football) that know the worst thing a program desperate for the revenue his name could earn the college could hear is a ‘no.’ But even those athletes can only hope that they wind up making enough money in the pros that when their bodies begin breaking down from the years of overwork and abuse, they’re set.

All the other athletes, the athletes that are recruited by the Olympic dream that only five people every four years will be given a chance to compete for, continue to plunk out thousands and thousands of dollars for the chance to work too many hours in abusive conditions that depend on them being powerless, voiceless and obedient. The already limited power of a high revenue athlete is non-existent for those whose sport only becomes big every four years like gymnastics–or never for sports like rowing, softball, or field hockey. It means something that most low-revenue or ‘every four years’ sports are sports played by women/girls.

Which all makes me wonder; what would happen if all these athletes were allowed to organize and unionize?

If we’re to go by how quickly the state of Michigan created and signed into law Public Act 414, the law that makes it illegal for student athletes to unionize after athletes in a different state and non-Michigan school were allowed to unionize, we’d have to suspect that empowering non-professional athletes would cause a massive shift in power that universities, club sports, the NCAA, the Olympic organization and even sports media don’t want and would be unprepared to handle.

Of course there would be a tremendous loss of money for these major institutions if student athletes had the right to organize to be paid for their labor instead of to pay for it. But more importantly, what would happen if any of the student athletes at MSU had the chance to go to their union rep when coach Kathie Klages ignored their complaints? Or if either of the women’s gold medal winning Olympic teams had the power of their union behind them when they said, unless you get rid of Larry Nassar and allow each athlete to go to their own doctors, we’re not competing at the Olympics? Or if every little girl at Twistars gym had the power to mobilize all the gymnasts at the gym to get rid Larry Nassar? Or Kathie Klages? Or Jim Geddert?

How quickly might things have changed? Do these huge sports entities really want that level of change? Or do they depend on athletes being powerless?

I know that unions come with their own problems. And we have to assume that if all these other institutions could so fantastically and horrifically fail hundreds of athletes in this way, a union could too.

But right now, with so many people looking for all these individual entities to ‘save’ girl and women athletes, it’s shocking and appalling to me that next to nobody is acknowledging that girl and women athletes saved themselves. And that their power comes from their ability to mass mobilize. And that right now, the one entity we have in the US that can provide any sort of protection at all for mobilized populations, are unions.

What if the best thing we can do to ‘save’ our athletes, and especially athletes that are women and girls, isn’t get more sympathetic judges or get the FBI or the NCAA involved in investigations, but is rather instead to fight that fucked up bullshit piece of shit legislation in Michigan that makes it illegal for college athletes to unionize?

Would we be willing to support their efforts by refusing to buy tickets, products advertised during major sporting events, and refusing to allow our children to go to colleges that refuse to let their teams unionize?

Sports are a money making industry now. Acknowledging that we’re expecting children to pay to work in abusive conditions is not cynical or an attempt to eliminate the ‘purity’ of sports culture. It’s acknowledging that industries rarely, if ever treat their workers with respect or dignity unless they’re forced to.

Rachael Denhollander asked us all to answer the questions–how much is a little girl worth? How much is a woman worth?

Their lives are worth fighting for unionization. They’re lives are worth shutting everything down until all athletes have the right to mobilize, organize and unionize. And their lives are worth me doing without sports until the power shifts and one athlete’s voice saying the first time it happens that they want it to stop, holds as much power as 156 voices in a court room does.




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