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Jane McManus: Fine Print Is A Part Of The Game

Jessica King was tasked, for a class in sports journalism, with looking through the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement with the players. At 350 pages, it is a significant document. When class began and comments were solicited, she raised her hand.

The document is so dense, it was really hard to understand.

Terri Jackson, the WNBA Players Association executive director, was impressed with what King noticed. A lot of her job consists of just explaining to players the rights and responsibilities to which they have agreed. Why do these agreements have to be so obscure in the first place?

Jackson was one of three representatives of sports unions who spoke at Marist College’s New York City executive center last week. And it is a big moment for all three. The WNBA recently completed a new agreement, which doubled the pay of players, while the NFL and NFL Players Association are in the middle of their own negotiations. The NFL owners voted last week to approve a new proposal, which includes an additional game each season, while the players opted to delay a vote until this week.

As Nolan Harrison, the Senior Director for former players at the union explained, increasing the length of the NFL season to 17 games is a difficult thing for a lot of players to agree to, but if they give the owners that concession, the players could get a lot of the items on their own wish list.

Meanwhile, US Women’s National Team advisor Molly Levinson noted that the women’s soccer players are set to go to trial against US Soccer this May in the fight for pay equity, equity that the men’s soccer union just came out in full-throated support of.

“It’s so significant,” said Levinson. “Having the support from the men and the public has been so critical. Pay equity is everyone’s issue.”

This is happening while the governing body of soccer in the United States just made the legal argument that the women should be paid less because women’s soccer is inherently inferior to men’s, and that the women shouldn’t be paid equally because, according to this logic, male and female soccer players are not doing the same job.

Perhaps it was the only defense left after the women started bringing in more revenue than the men four years ago, but imagine a league publically making the argument that its product is terrible in order to keep from paying the players.

This is the world of labor negotiations.

It isn’t the rah-rah part of sports, but labor negotiations are just as much a part of the game as the three-point line and seventh-inning stretch. For our students at Marist’s Center for Sports Communication, understanding these issues could soon be part of their job description. Without the benefit of a law degree, they might have to scrutinize the pages of these documents to determine what percentage of revenues do players get? Is childcare provided for women who play professional sports? What is the long-term healthcare for football players who put their bodies on the line?

These negotiations aren’t just about pay, although that’s a big part of it. Take the NFL’s healthcare, up until 2011, players only received healthcare benefits for five years after they retired – and this was in the era before the Affordable Care Act. Knowing what we now do about the long-term consequences of playing the game, it seems an insane risk – when many of those players were saddled with numerous “pre-existing conditions” once they hung up their cleats.

Michael Smith, the former reporter and broadcaster who is teaching an interviewing class at Marist this spring, had his students come up with questions for the panelists. Are mental health provisions being negotiated? How could the support from men’s soccer impact USWNT arguments for pay equity? Is the diversity of coaches important to players in these negotiations?

It’s a cliché that most fans reflexively support ownership in many leagues, because they can identify more easily with the sedentary rich man than they can the physically gifted athlete, who makes millions for merely catching a ball.

But perhaps it’s because it’s easier to see what an owner does, while the work and hardship that goes into being game ready isn’t broadcast on the big screen. The pain and sleeplessness, the brevity of an average career, so much of it is invisible to fans.

But in an industry where so much money can be on the line, the players get a say in the terms as well. Keep that in mind when NFL players vote to ratify or reject a 17-game season this week.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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