Big-time sports, which are supposed to offer an entertaining diversion from the serious and often dismal news we’re bombarded with these days, recently have provided anything but.
Whether it’s performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, labor conflicts in basketball, bounties and suicides in football, gratuitous violence in hockey, abuse of children in major college athletics programs or myriad other scandals, sports these days doesn’t divert attention from what’s wrong with our society as much as reflect — even magnify — it.
And sports unions are part of the mix. As noted in this space in January 2010, our professional sports leagues are an increasingly prominent setting for the nation’s labor struggles, from strikes and lockouts to issues of worker safety or drug testing. And all too often, unions are part of the problem, in ways that hurt not only the sports they’re part of and the members they represent, but also — given the attention paid to sports by the public and the media — the image of labor writ large.
Over the past couple of years, that trend has only intensified.
We’re subjected on a daily basis to the sordid legal proceedings involving Roger Clemens, once regarded as one of the greatest pitchers ever to put on a uniform, but now reduced to a figure worthy of ridicule as his former strength and conditioning coach testifies how he not only injected the pitcher with illicit substances, but Mr. Clemens’ wife as well.
For that we can thank, in part, the Major League Baseball Players Association, which for years chose to ignore what any casual fan could see — that players were bulking up in unnatural ways to break decades-old records that once seemed out of reach. Steroids were not only wreaking chaos with the record books — the means by which baseball lore was passed down through generations — they also were wreaking havoc with players’ physical well-being.
All this was made possible by a union that decided its role was not to protect the integrity of the game that employed its members, not to protect honest union members, not to provide positive role models for the millions of young fans — but rather to protect the cheaters, keep the cash flowing and fight management at all costs, even if it meant putting up legalistic obstacles to efforts to clean up the sport. (Management, it must be noted, was equally happy to disregard the problem as long as lucrative TV contracts continued and fans flocked to the ballparks.)
The MLBPA’s executive director for 24 years, Donald Fehr, has since been recycled as executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, which long has proven incapable of protecting its members from vicious on-ice assaults.
Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association Players Association — which was complicit in the conflict that shortened and nearly derailed the current season, though owners played the more-destructive role — is undergoing an ugly internal struggle. The NBAPA’s executive committee last month sent a memo to its player representatives that portrayed the respected Derek Fisher as an unfit union president who has been derelict in carrying out his duties since the end of the lockout. The battle to oust Mr. Fisher heated up after he called for an independent audit of the union’s financial practices.
The National Football League Players Association, which had been a rare sports union seemingly run by adults as it sought to minimize the danger to players of concussions in the violent sport, now has chosen to fight the penalties assessed players implicated in the New Orleans Saints’ so-called “bounty” scandal that involved payments for injuring opposing players.
Athletes can be forgiven if fame, fortune and the nature of their job — playing a boys’ game — arrests their development, but could we please have some grown-ups representing them?
• Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues