Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

The Coming Revolution in the NBA (and the Woman Who Will Lead It)

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

When Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Europe was in the midst of revolutionary change. The opening line of the Manifesto is “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” The idea of an economy and society democratically controlled by working people was one that struck fear into the hearts of Europe’s ruling classes.

In the world of professional sports, the bourgeoisie hasn’t quaked in their loafers for some time now. In the past ten years, team owners have boldly locked out players in the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL (twice), weakening collective bargaining agreements in the process. In many ways, labour relations in pro sports mirrors the one-sided state of class struggle beyond the floodlights and scoreboards. Players’ associations, like other labour unions, have been in retreat. In Major League Baseball, the players’ share of league revenue has fallen close to 20 percent in the last 20 years. In the NFL, it’s down from 50 to 47 percent. And in the NBA, the last two rounds of collective bargaining saw a massive transfer of wealth from players to owners—some $3 billion over a decade.

Enter Michelle Roberts, pro sports answer to Angela Davis. Last July, the Harlem-based lawyer made history by becoming the first woman to lead a major North American professional sports union, the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA). Roberts is African-American and grew up in public housing in the South Bronx. According to a profile in the New York Times, her mother, Elsie, raised Roberts and her four siblings on her own, cleaning houses and selling home-cooked food to supplement the money she received on welfare.

After attending New York City public schools, Roberts earned a scholarship to a prestigious private school. From there, she went on to the University of California at Berkley, graduating with a degree in law. Roberts became a public defender, reflecting her belief that “poor people have the right to a good defense”, before earning a reputation as one of America’s fiercest trial lawyers. Oh and she picked up a side gig teaching at Harvard along the way.

Despite having no background in labour relations, Roberts beat out 300 other candidates to replace Billy Hunter as executive director of the NBPA. Hunter was considered a soft touch at the bargaining table and had long ago lost the confidence of basketball’s rank-and-file.

In her first big media interview, Roberts struck a markedly different tone than her predecessor. Throwing a verbal hand grenade into the normally polite discourse of NBA labour relations, she called the league’s billionaire owners “replaceable”. Channeling Marx, Roberts asked, “Why don’t we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. [The players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”

Then, when asked if she thought she would be underestimated in the male-dominated sports world, Roberts replied, “My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” As New York magazine put it, “If you’re looking for the one person most likely to alter the world of sports most dramatically over the next decade … It’s this 58-year-old woman sitting in her office in Harlem, ready to watch the sports world burn.”

Although NBA team owners are crying poor—they always do—Roberts knows that the league has never been more profitable. The NBA is the midst of a revenue boom with a new $24 billion television contract, rising gate receipts, and strong merchandising sales. The average NBA franchise is worth $1.1 billion—and yet owners want to chip away at player gains in salaries, benefits, and working conditions (never mind continuing to squeeze city governments for taxpayer dollars, building shiny new arenas on the public dime).

Well Roberts is having none of this. With her at the helm of the NBAPA and a new round of collective bargaining on the horizon, the players are in a bolshie mood. Even the league’s wealthiest player, LeBron James, is sounding like a basketball Che Guevara and was recently elected to the union executive. A players’ strike could well be on the horizon.

But despite their resources, the players’ have always had one serious disadvantage vis-a-vis owners—a disadvantage somewhat unique to their occupation. When your career is five years long, losing a season’s salary to a strike is a serious financial hit. Roberts answer to this? Ruminating on the future of the NBA, she insisted that the players, if pressed, are capable of forming a league of their own; that is a league managed, owned, and controlled by the players themselves. With Michelle Roberts at the bargaining table, it seems a spectre is haunting the NBA.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 49 No. 2 March/April 2015

Sexism, soccer, and struggle

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I explore the struggle for equality being waged by the Canadian women’s national soccer team.

Strikes. Protests. Boycotts. Tunisia? Egypt? Bahrain? How about the Canadian women’s national soccer team?

The team’s spat with the Canadian Soccer Association has sparked a players’ revolt. Two issues lay at the heart of the dispute: The first is coach Carolina Morace’s desire to have more control over the team’s budget; a good idea given a history of nepotism and financial mismanagement in the CSA that would make an Arab dictator blush. And the second is the CSA’s differential treatment of the women’s and men’s teams which should be named for what it is: sexism.

Looking to improve their compensation package, the women demanded to know how often and how much the men’s team gets paid. The women are paid on an ad-hoc basis, tournament by tournament, and sometimes are still negotiating pay days before a big game. The men of course are on more secure financial footing.  How secure, the CSA won’t say, which leads me to believe that the disparity between the two teams is as great as the women suspect.

Talk about gender inequality in the workforce: the women are akin to casual day labourers, negotiating wages with every new job. Remarkably, this precariousness hasn’t impacted their work on game day: they are ranked among the top women’s teams in the world. The same cannot be said of the men, currently 84th, just better than Mali but not quite as strong as Macedonia.

With the CSA refusing to cede to either demand, the women announced that they would boycott the upcoming women’s World Cup, a tournament the players will have likely dreamed of playing in since childhood.  Furthermore, they announced a player strike, refusing to participate in any international game leading up to the World Cup until the CSA gave them the respect they deserved (The U.S. women’s team went on strike a few years back and won pay equity).

While the CSA has opened contract negotiations with Morace and looks likely to secure her services beyond the World Cup, at the time this column went to print there’s been no resolution on the issue of player compensation. With Morace and the CSA in talks, the team called off their boycott and got themselves a lawyer. They will file for arbitration with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, whose mandate is to sort these types of things out in a ‘responsible’ manner (i.e. not boycotts and strikes).

We’ll have to wait and see if the legal strategy proves fruitful. As any well-schooled trade unionist knows, there’s nothing like the withdrawal of your labour to get the bosses attention. But should they go back on strike, it’s not like the players will be away from the daily drudgery of the factory; they would risk missing the biggest event of their sporting lives. The CSA knows this and it puts the women in a weak bargaining position.  If I were them, I’d explore some other channels: a letter writing campaign by soccer players across the country could apply pressure on the CSA and continuing to generate media attention, publicly shaming the association, won’t hurt either (A little solidarity from the men’s team would be nice!).

This affair is just the latest to expose the Canadian Soccer Association for what it is: an old-boys club whose administrative inertia and political infighting has produced an underachieving men’s program and an abysmal youth development scheme.  The success of the women’s team has come in spite, not because of, the Canadian Soccer Association. Too bad they can’t break from the old patriarchs altogether and establish a Canadian Women’s Soccer Association based on feminist and egalitarian principles. But in a game with only eleven players, we can’t all play left-wing.

Published in Canadian Dimension May/June 2011

‘SlutWalks’ Go Global

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

A Toronto cop, speaking to a group of students about campus safety at York University, said: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

The comments sparked what is now a global movement and Toronto’s very own, and very unique, contribution to putting the ‘movement’ back into the women’s movement and revitalizing 3rd wave feminism. Check out the website below.

An excerpt from the SlutWalk manifesto:

“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated.

We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.

We are a movement demanding that our voices be heard. We are here to call foul on our Police Force and demand change. We want Toronto Police Services to take serious steps to regain our trust. We want to feel that we will be respected and protected should we ever need them, but more importantly be certain that those charged with our safety have a true understanding of what it is to be a survivor of sexual assault — slut or otherwise.

We are tired of speeches filled with lip service and the apologies that accompany them. What we want is meaningful dialogue and we are doing something about it: WE ARE COMING TOGETHER. Not only as women, but as people from all gender expressions and orientations, all walks of life, levels of employment and education, all races, ages, abilities, and backgrounds, from all points of this city and elsewhere.”

Also, check out this article in today’s Guardian: