Sports are labor and athletes are workers. This job exists because we've created an economy that globally supports it, albeit only for an extremely narrow subset of athletes sustainably. The most successful sports leagues and franchises are often ones that make profit in alignment with the state. They agree implicitly to be cultural forces of soft propaganda, sometimes gently but other times more overtly pushing the needle of public opinion towards governments and militaries. They also, in a lot of places, consent to being part of capitalism, which has a very cozy relationship with governments and militaries. All of this seemed pretty straightforward when the original labor unions were being formed in men's pro sports in North America. It was disruptive in the sense that it transferred a huge amount of bargaining power in these leagues to the workers.
But being a professional athlete is tricky – it can be hard to separate the person from the job they perform because it's so inherent to their identity, and yet the benefit to society is based in entertainment and community, rather than something more material (like, say, resource extraction – coal mining, to name one prominent example often associated with unions). And today, being a professional athlete in any of the major pro men's leagues in Western society often means that you are fucking rich – not like, Jeff Bezos rich, but pretty damn rich compared to most people, including most other union-backed employees in North America.
This blurs class consciousness when it comes to sports in a pretty complex way. The affinity we feel towards our favorite athletes in major men's leagues often comes at the expense of class solidarity. They may be union men, but sports labor organizations comprised of millionaires have very different material interests than other laborers. On one hand, their working conditions are unique and pretty acutely focused on their bodies and health, since their bodies are the essence of the product they create in an extremely direct way. I could come to work with a broken ankle and still do most of my job, since I work in IT. Jason Kelce, center for the Philadelphia Eagles, could not. But on the other hand, professional athletes often have a huge stake in maintaining the profile of the league they work for. I could go work for another company if I wanted to and make a comparable salary; the members of the NFLPA could not since the NFL is the premier American football league in the world. They have a vested interest in maintaining the wealth that comes along with being an NFL player. The leverage that they maintain in their union is inherently linked to the value of their bodies, and solidarity with different classes, different bodies, would reduce that leverage along with the perceived value of their bodies. Exclusive of that, there is a culture and a sense of personal achievement that comes along with being a major league player. The NFL isn't just a business; no truly successful sports league anywhere is just a business. It's a cultural institution. Each major sports league that has true cultural cachet is the career goal of young athletes all over the world.
This aspirational model is one of the foundations of capitalist thinking – "just work hard enough, and you can achieve this, too." Because of this, and because of how much people enjoy consuming sports even if they never play them or participate in them in other ways, there isn't a whole lot of incentive among regular people to interrogate how labor functions in sports. Athletes are the product, for one thing; we consume them as entertainment rather than thinking about them as people and as workers. But the conspicuous wealth and perceived stability of pro men's sports belies the reality of labor conditions across sports in general. Even in pro men's sports, major leagues resist providing athletes with care after head injury by claiming that head injuries don't cause CTE or other long-term brain issues – look no further than the NHL for examples of this. But the public is largely content to keep watching NHL games, rooting for their favorite teams, or participating in more "serious" discourse like rating NHL prospects or doing advanced stats, as long as they are appropriately upset the next time a young person is stretchered off the ice after a bad hit or someone looks disoriented after a fight.
And it's notable that the NHLPA, the union that is supposed to improve conditions for players, hasn't done more to combat this issue – because they have a vested interest in the NHL remaining profitable and having a good reputation. If your coworker suffered a traumatic brain injury at work doing a routine task and had difficulty returning and had to go on disability, you'd want to ensure that didn't happen to you, too. You might lobby your employer, along with your fellow workers, to ensure that appropriate protections were put in place to ensure that this injury did not happen again. And you'd hopefully be shocked if, after your injured coworker suffered prolonged mental health and substance abuse issues after their injury, your employer said that their struggles had nothing to do with the traumatic brain injury at work because there is no evidence of that (despite overwhelming medical evidence that is available to the public and laypeople). You'd be shocked if the majority of your coworkers sided with the company on this matter and if some of them even continued to do the unsafe thing that led to the injury, because that's just the "culture." But that's what NHLPA members did for decades with hits to the head in hockey despite overwhelming evidence that it was causing serious long-term health issues for players. Their allegiance to the institution itself has proven to be greater than their allegiance to workers, especially workers whose value has depreciated due to work-related injuries – that is, workers whose bodies are no longer capable of playing hockey, because of hockey.
So how do we extend this economy to support other bodies that have been traditionally considered less valuable (for example, women's bodies, nonbinary bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies)? Men's sports need to do a better job supporting their own, certainly, but they also need to play a part in reallocating resources to other types of sports leagues that have not historically had the same opportunities to build wealth. This is the clearest path towards building class and labor consciousness in sports – not just for athletes but for the media, fans, and other sports laborers as well, like facilities workers and hospitality employees. By doing this and building popular consciousness of what constitutes labor, athletes recognizing sports as a class-conscious vector for labor solidarity could absolutely be part of a positive change for workers in society.
It's a big ask, though. It requires people admitting that the aspirational narrative of work under capitalism has been a lie, that the promised rewards of "hard work" were only ever meant for a small subset of people who had pre-ordained value in society by virtue of their race, class, and gender. And that if we had equity among workers and labor rights for everyone, that the distribution of resources would look much, much different than it does today – including in professional sports. There wouldn't be millionaires as part of an alleged laborer class who have their worth determined by bosses who are even richer and whose value doesn't depreciate due to injury and bodily harm.
In women's sports, where executives and media members continue to treat the leagues and athletes as if their inherent value is less than it would be if they were men, the situation is even more dire. Women's sports are susceptible to centrism and imperialism because the economic conditions we've created also help us harbor the illusion that you need both of these to succeed materially, or to deserve to succeed materially.
Recently, the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association has caused controversy by continuing to not play in the National Women's Hockey League and not necessarily always being polite about it. But because this is women's hockey, a lot of the controversy has not been about the labor action itself, but the lack of willingness in the community to refer to it as an organized labor action. If the athletes aren't workers in the traditional sense, then their conversation about reasonable working conditions aren't necessarily based in materialism – they're based in something else. Something intangible. Like a "commitment" to women's hockey or a "belief" in a certain business model. A "loyalty" to their fans or their peers or colleagues.
But, of course, the athletes are workers. This is important to understand when contextualizing Hilary Knight's recent comments regarding the professionalism of women's hockey in North America. When Knight referred to the NWHL as a "glorified beer league" in comments to the Associated Press earlier this month, many in the women's hockey fan community were quick to call this comment disrespectful and construed it as unfairly targeting or attacking the NWHL:
While the Canadian Women's Hockey League closed after 12 years of operation last spring — due in part to competition with the NWHL for talent — the five-team NWHL is in the midst of its fifth season , soldiering on without the same star power.
"It's a glorified beer league to me," said Knight, who won a scoring title with the NWHL's Boston Pride before moving on to the CHWL. "It's serving a purpose but it's not elite talented players that are playing at a high level."
However, Knight also called the now-folded CWHL a "glorified beer league" in comments to Jared Book:
"Part of it is education and having a conversation. I love the volunteers, I love the template that we had. I enjoyed playing in the CWHL as many years as I did. However, if we're going to really peel back the layers of it, it was sort of a glorified beer league. What made it professional was the volunteers and the people involved. So it's just ... it's frustrating that you kind of have to continue to have these conversations over and over again. But at the same time, that's our job. We need to educate people, and we need to make sure that the right information is getting to the appropriate people. Overall, I think we've done a really good job. As I said before, there's always going to be people that are marching the other direction, but I'm pretty confident with the group that we have, and what we're trying to strive for collectively."
This is one of Knight's go-to phrases, it seems, to describe the current state of things, and it's worth unpacking what it means. "Beer league" means recreational play without compensation (except maybe some community beer). It's actually more akin to the "for the love of the game" slogan that was associated with the CWHL and women's hockey for many years. Beer league players aren't expecting to be paid because they are not performing a job; their activity is recreational and purely framed around the enjoyment of hockey in a social or hobby setting.
Knight's "beer league" comments ring true in terms of the late night ice time that CWHL and NWHL teams have had to accept over the years for practices, just one schedule slot ahead of an actual beer league in many cases. They also ring true in the sense that CWHL players participated in the league for many years with zero compensation, actually paying for things out of their own pockets to play – in other words, working for a negative wage. When the CWHL did start paying players, and in the years that both the CWHL and NWHL were offering paychecks, it was certainly not a living wage in either case. The NWHL salaries and other earnings have become less transparent as time has gone on. NWHL players get other types of compensation, like gift cards, free equipment, and revenue splits, but that is not the same as actual reliable wages that can pay the rent and bills. Knight has been consistent in her criticism, acknowledging that neither the CWHL nor the NWHL has ever provided a living wage – but it's the "beer league" characterization of the NWHL that has upset people, rather than the material conditions that caused her to make that comment.
"Glorified beer league" can only be especially insulting if you genuinely believe the current material conditions of women's hockey are equitable, fair, and what the workers deserve – if you believe that hey, we have had two nominally successful and beloved leagues that have been able to pay the players something. But this opinion is hardly "disrespectful", or at least not more any less respectful than the NWHL putting out on social media that "no one is a scab." (Also, incidentally, admitting that there are no unions – which isn't a good thing.)
There is in fact a fundamental difference of opinion between the PWHPA and the NWHL, and the acrimonious nature of the current situation should make that more than apparent. By insisting that there's not a difference, actually, the conversation shifts away from labor and towards rhetorical debate about what is considered "respectful" or acceptable behavior in public discourse. It's a red herring. Instead of discussing what, materially, the NWHL has to offer compared to what the PWHPA wants, or what Knight wants, people want to have a louder public discussion about whether or not she has been disrespectful to a league that she and her fellow PWHPA members have overtly stated that they do not want to play in because they did not feel the material support or the environment was good enough.
By implying that the PWHPA should be more "respectful" of the NWHL, again, this obscures the materialist nature of the PWHPA's argument. Why be respectful of something when you don't feel that the conditions they offer you are respectful of your labor? "Glorified beer league" is a materialist critique pertaining to all of women's hockey, not an ad hominem attack on the NWHL. It's another way to say that players shouldn't just be happy to be there, happy to lace up the skates and get some ice time in.
Fellow PWHPA member Noora Räty received similar backlash in social media when she chose to call existing women's hockey players not yet professionals.
Obviously everyone involved in women's hockey believes that and wants a living wage for players. The difference of opinion is whether the NWHL can provide that, and clearly, the majority of players who skated in that league last season didn't think so. They have the experience of those conditions, so it should be 100% up to them whether they want to continue to be part of that, and whether they feel it meets their standards.
If you insist that there is no such thing as an actual materialist critique of working conditions in sports, then it becomes pretty easy to insist that athletes are not workers who face unique labor challenges and who require unions with actual class solidarity in order to address those challenges. But the conversation in women's hockey has shifted so far away from labor that even obliquely addressing it is considered disrespectful or distracting. Unfortunately this is par for the course in hockey culture and in much of sporting culture in general, and the aspirational nature of becoming a professional athlete has created a huge barrier to class consciousness in the United States, especially with regards to labor.
It's worth examining why there is so much backlash to these materialist critiques of professionalism, and why the popular conversation keeps shifting away from materialism and labor and instead towards the rhetorical conventions used to describe the current conditions, or in many cases, obscure them. It's worth examining and interrogating why the women's hockey fan and media community has been unwilling to discuss the PWHPA as a labor rights movement. The athletes aren't just symbols or goals or products – they're workers.