What Fans Should Know About Labor Battles In Sports: They Aren’t, And Shouldn’t Be, About You

The National Hockey League’s 113-day lockout of players is over, and for players, owners, and everyone involved in the game, that’s great news. It is also good news for sports fans, who have endured lockouts in three of the four major American sports in the last two years.

Even better news is that after such volatility in the world of sports, we could be entering an unprecedented era of labor peace. Since 1968, when the National Football League first locked out its players, there have been 19 work stoppages in the four major leagues, but we’re now guaranteed labor peace until at least 2016, when Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires. If MLB does what it did in 2011 and negotiates a new agreement without a stoppage, and if both the National Basketball Association and its players union refuse to opt out of their current agreement in 2017, we will make it until at least 2020 without a stoppage, meaning the next eight years could become the longest period of labor peace in professional sports since the players’ union movement began.

Whenever the next dispute rolls around, though, here is something for fans of the four biggest sports to keep in mind: labor disputes in sports aren’t, and shouldn’t be, about you.

Every time sports leagues stop because of a labor fight, fans get up in arms about how they are the only people truly hurt by lockouts and strikes. Observers, including the president of the United States, often urge both sides to come together and strike a deal, ignoring that there are real issues at stake and real points of disagreement. That view couldn’t be more misguided.


Labor battles, in sports and elsewhere, are about workers’ rights — to fair pay, to safety, to health care, to retirement security. They are about workers who feel they are entitled to those rights and owners or executives who feel the workers are entitled to less. Whether those workers are locked out from Caterpillar or from professional hockey, whether they are median wage construction workers or millionaire athletes, doesn’t diminish the importance of their issues. And since, as I’ve written, labor battles in sports reflect the same issues as labor battles elsewhere, the implications of a labor fight in sports often stretch far beyond the playing field.

The idea that fans are the victims also ignores those who are adversely affected by work stoppages. Small businesses — restaurants and bars, fan shops, an assortment of others — lose customers. Arena workers, the people who ensure you, the fan, can watch a game in a safe environment and the people who clean up your mess once you leave, lose paychecks. Some front office workers take pay cuts. Others are laid off. In the case of hockey, it even hurts charities.

Players, who provide the labor that makes our sports so enjoyable (and so profitable), lose paychecks. They face attempts to reduce their pay, to eliminate their pension, to make their health care less generous. Sound familiar? It’s the story of every labor battle in America, played out on a far more public (and far more expensive) field.

You? Assuming you’re not in an industry that depends on one of those sports, you lose the ability to watch a game. That certainly isn’t fun, and I suppose it’s even justified if you choose to stop coming back. But losing a leisurely activity isn’t the same as losing your livelihood, and it’s time to stop pretending it is.