Some Thoughts on Sports and Class Struggle

Until reading Brad Snyder's A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports and William C. Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete,
I had not thought much about the relationship between class and sports.
Sure, I have thought a great deal about sports and race, and sports and
gender, but ironically, not much about sports and class. Despite being
a socialist, I have to confess that I have looked at most professional
athletes as non-workers, largely because of the salaries that big-name
athletes pull in. Yet the titles of both Snyder's and Rhoden's books
focusing on the issue of slavery represents an interesting tie-in
between matters of race and class, and forces one to look at the
athlete from a different vantage point.

In the USA we tend to view class not as one's relationship to the
means of production, distribution and control, but rather in terms of
one's income. Thus, the higher the income, the less that the average
person will tend to think that it is possible to consider someone a
worker. In fact, the higher the income the less the chance of public
sympathy for the plight of a worker because it is assumed that they
have it good. One saw this in the New York City Transit strike, for
instance, where many grassroots people viewed the transit workers as
either overpaid or spoiled, and in either case not deserving of
support. The conclusion that many people arrived at is that a domestic
worker, or a sweatshop worker, deserves support–which usually means
sympathy rather than solidarity–but that higher-paid workers are on
their own.

This phenomenon becomes very clear when it comes to sports. Curt Flood’s famous (and in some quarters infamous) statement to the effect that he and other baseball players were “well-paid slaves” set off a firestorm of controversy when verbalized in the late 1960s. How, it was argued, could someone who earned the money that Curt Flood, et al., did and who had the opportunity to have a job that they enjoyed doing compare themselves to slaves? The same issue has emerged in other sports over time, particularly in football and basketball.

What is missing from the analysis of many regular people is the connection between class and power. While a substantial income absolutely will tend to affect one’s consciousness, at the end of the day the question for a worker is whether they actually have the power to decide what to do with their surplus labor. In less economic terms, does a worker have any real control over the direction of their work life? And, if not, why not? Who, then, does have such control?

What Curt Flood and other courageous athletes posed was not simply the challenge facing the Black athlete, but additionally the question of the control of the athlete. In the case of Flood, the fight was over the notorious “reserve clause,” which held most baseball players in circumstances analogous to indentured servitude. In today’s professional sports, the athletes face the challenge of what Rhoden refers to as the “conveyer belt” that takes an athlete from high school sports into professional sports–if they are lucky–but which renders the athlete increasingly dependent on the system in general and the owners in particular. In both circumstances, the athlete has little or no control over that which they bring to the table. They can negotiate better or worse terms of compensation, but they lack control.

To the extent to which we on the Left permit class to be viewed largely in terms of income, we shoot ourselves in the feet. We are constantly forced to appeal to public sympathy rather than gaining public support for the struggles of workers because either the cause is simply the right cause, and/or because the cause or issue should be supported as a matter of solidarity and mutual interest. The logic of class-as-income was a contributing factor to the failure of many unionized workers (and certainly union leaders) to acknowledge and support the PATCO (air traffic controllers) struggle in 1981. After all, these were simply well-paid, spoiled workers who, as a matter of fact, had endorsed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential election!

When one looks at many of the issues contained in the world of sports, it becomes important to dig a bit deeper than what immediately jumps out. Issues of race, gender, and national origin have achieved prominence over the years because of brutal discrimination and courageous struggles for justice. Yet class is all but ignored, and as such, we lose the opportunity to raise some very basic issues regarding the need for workers to control not only the circumstances of their employment, but, more radically, the disposition of the surplus they create.

Had it not been for my being reminded of Curt Flood’s great struggle three decades ago, I think that I would have also dropped the ball… no pun intended.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is long-time leftist, particularly active in labor and international affairs. He can be reached at .
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