Professor Michael Smith Holds Sports Labor Panel with Reps from the NFL, USWNT, and WNBA

Professor Michael Smith moderated a Sports Labor Panel in Marist’s Manhattan space on Wednesday, February 19. He led a discussion about collective bargaining agreements and their negotiation processes. Representatives from the National Football League, Women’s National Basketball Association, and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team took part in said discussion.

The three panelists were Terri Jackson, Molly Levinson, and former NFL player Nolan Harrison. Jackson is the Executive Director of the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association, or WNBPA. Levinson is the official spokeswoman for the Women’s National Soccer Team, and Harrison is the Senior Director of Former Player Services of the NFLPA.

The panel began on a light note. Professor Smith started the event by dubbing the conversation the “State of the Unions,” which garnered laughter from the audience. After the punny icebreaker, Smith got down to business: he asked Harrison — a Marist parent to boot — if there were any updates to the NFL’s negotiations with the NFLPA.

The NFL is currently in the middle of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association; its current one expires in March of 2021. The goal is for the new collective bargaining agreement to be good for 10 years.

The main issues the NFL and the NFLPA disagree over are the possibilities of a 17-game schedule and a playoff expansion. “There’s been a lot of ferocious negotiations,” said Harrison, “especially over the last couple of weeks.” Midday on Wednesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the NFL playoffs could be expanded to seven games under the proposal that at that time was “current.” He added that “the regular season would be increased to 17 games per team.”

Smith then moved on to focus on the WNBPA and how they recently came to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. With it came more gender equity, increased salaries, and better healthcare and general benefits. Players can now make six-figure salaries per season; some of these other benefits include private hotel rooms, childcare for players in need of such services, and charter flights across the country.

It came after many members of the WNBA opted out of the previous agreement, which had never been done before in any league. Jackson credited that with the power of voice. “The ‘Me Too’ movement strengthened player voice,” Jackson said. “We saw what the power of voice was like.”

Jackson also mentioned that the U.S. women’s soccer team helped them in realizing changes were needed. “What was happening with women’s soccer helped us,” she continued. “We were all in this together. It wasn’t just about equal pay, but about gender equity.”

Jackson is still working on implementing more women into higher positions in the WNBA, such as coaching and management. This matter is not in their new agreement.

Smith then engaged with Levinson regarding the lawsuit they filed against the United States Soccer Federation. The team argues they aren’t getting fair compensation for their proven dominance on the field over the past decade. It’s a perception issue regarding how the women were seen compared to the men.

“When you argue you deserve equal value, and you’re told you don’t contribute to the bottom line as much… we’ve contributed more,” Levinson explained.

Recently, the men’s national team spoke out against U.S. Soccer and called for equal pay for their female counterparts. Levinson believes that helps their case.

“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.”

The trial is set to take place on May 5. “We’re incredibly hopeful,” she said.

Based on the discussion, a lot goes into coming up with collective bargaining agreements. It isn’t just a simple give-and-take. There are a lot more contributors to it. Player representatives, team owners, and league officials have meetings where everything is discussed and deliberated until a final agreement – for that time period – is made. It’s a long process.

After discussing the process of coming up with a CBA, Smith opened up the panel to questions from the audience. The conversation quickly shifted to the health of both current and former players, especially in the NFL. Many know about the problems the NFL has had recently about CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but the health of retired players is seldom discussed.

Harrison said that lifetime healthcare for players was discussed even when he played back in the 90s but was never acted on. The NFL is trying to work something out where retired players are able to have the healthcare they need.

“Everyone who was drafted from 2011 to now essentially has it,” said Harrison. “It’s all based on how well they take care of their money and if they can pay their bills.”

Additionally, the NFL has also placed restrictions on how much time players can spend on the field and limited tackling during practice.

“It’s a health and safety concern,” said Harrison. “It has to be negotiated.”

In the WNBA, the issue with health coincides with a newly coined term and NBA-favorite phrase: load management. Since the WNBA regular season is only 34 games long, many players opt to play overseas during the off-season as a way to make more money.

Jackson voiced her concerns about those players. “I know the body can’t take that much basketball,” said Jackson. In the new agreement, teams will play fewer back-to-back games during the season and will increase the number of games played over time in an attempt to prevent players from playing too much, per se.

“We’ve become more mindful of scheduling,” said Jackson. “That will help us see its true impact on our players.”

After another round of audience questions, one, in particular, brought excitement to the panel. A student asked how they can add creativity to their respective leagues to draw more fan interest.

According to Jackson, the WNBA and the players’ association agreed to have an in-season tournament as a way to make the league more appealing to sports fans. “We would’ve had it first if we negotiated earlier,” Jackson joked, noting that the NBA “first” came out with an idea similar to theirs right before the WNBA’s agreement became official.

“We’re still going to have [the tournament]. The players asked for it,” continued Jackson. “It’ll definitely be interesting and probably draw some more fans.”

The event provided great insight into the inner-workings of the business and law sides of sports, along with a broader context as to how everyone involved in sports leagues understands how each league is run, from the executives and officials down to the players.

Edited by Will Bjarnar

Header photo by Mike Cahill

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