Interview: Michael LeRoy on Collective Bargaining and the NCAA — Part Two

This is the conclusion of a two-part interview with Michael LeRoy, Professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois; the first half can be found here.  The interview was conducted on April 12th, 2013.

Do you imagine the bargaining unit being just those athletes from high-revenue sports, like football or men’s basketball, or do you think this is something all athletes would be able to participate in?

I think it would have to start out with football and/or basketball. I just can’t see it going any further than that.

Do you think that would then have a deleterious effect on athletes in the other sports? Would that only move athletic budgets and weigh them even more heavily towards football and basketball?

I do think so. Marginal revenue sports would be at risk. Hypothetically, a lacrosse team would pay the price for that. Having said that, this isn’t necessarily the outcome. When you look at how NCAA revenues are expanding, these are year-over-year high growth rates. So there are ways to do this.

Another area it could come out of is coaches’ salaries, which have skyrocketed. It’s true that probably the way it would happen is that a marginal sport would be cut, but if you’re paying the average football coach $1.5 to 2 million – if the rate of increase in those salaries wasn’t as high, maybe you could have a broader array of sports.

Do you think reform under the NCAA is possible, or do you think that the whole existing model of college athletics is so fundamentally flawed that it would need to be scrapped?

I think it requires external reform. There have been efforts internally to reform.

The NCAA is an easy target because they generate a huge amount of revenue, and they don’t share it properly with players. But there have been efforts to provide scholarship shortfall, to provide four-year scholarships – real four-year scholarships, not annually-renewing scholarships. Those reforms have been voted down. They’ve been voted down not because schools are greedy, but because the schools that have voted down these proposals are lower-budget schools, and they can’t afford what the Ohio States and Alabamas and USCs can afford.

The structure of the NCAA is so varied. You have behemoths with massive budgets, and you have low-budget schools that can barely make ends meet. And there are many more of the low-budget schools than the wealthy schools. So even well-intentioned people within the NCAA can’t make it happen. I do think it requires external reform.

The premise of the initial article I wrote was that we had a moment in a national semifinal in which an athlete, Kevin Ware from Louisville, suffered a terrible, gruesome injury. He now finds himself in a position in which his scholarship isn’t guaranteed, his medical bills, even in the short term and certainly in the long-term, aren’t guaranteed, and this could seriously impact his livelihood. Do you believe that it requires a moment like this to crystallize the need for reform? If so, how can we, as fans of college sport, take advantage of this and push for meaningful change?

I do think Kevin Ware’s injury is an opportunity to bring the issue forward. The public saw it, it was a gruesome injury, it makes very real the arguments that are in interviews and articles and just don’t have the same kind of impact.

But the window for getting something done is probably very small. I compare this to gun legislation. You have a massacre at a school, and three months later, it’s hard to get something accomplished, whereas the week after that horrific event, there was energy to do something. So I do think it gives impetus to reform, but the more that reform is delayed, the more distant Kevin Ware’s injury becomes.

So what advice do you give to someone who wants to be a responsible fan of college athletics? Should they be pressuring anyone? It feels very powerless.

Yeah, I don’t know quite what to say. It’s a catch-22.

I’ll compare it to union organizing efforts. One tactic that unions use is a boycott, but it’s unrealistic to think that sports fans will boycott the sports they’re passionate about. I don’t think fans can be an agent for change. I think groups that represent student athletes are the best force for change.

Where is the political weak point? What point in the chain from the athletes to the lawyers is the weakest point that’s holding back progress?

It’s very hard for students to agitate for change. They’re worried about staying on a team and competing for a position. And so many people are generally happy with the status quo that it’s just hard to see where this is going to change.

Less than three months later, Professor LeRoy’s predictions about the window of opportunity for reform have proven true.  The rash of stories about Ware’s lack of scholarship protection or long-term insurance coverage never materialized into a coordinated push for change.  None of this should diminish Kevin Ware’s dedication to the sport and his teammates, however.  Recent video shows Ware returning to the court and putting up jump shots just twelve weeks after a complete compound fracture of his lower leg.  He hopes to return to the Louisville team for the upcoming season.  As Michael LeRoy notes, Ware has far too much to worry about and too much at stake to lead a challenge against NCAA regulations, particularly when his future may depend on staying in Louisville’s good graces.  Instead, college basketball fans must act as conscientious consumers, demanding a product from the NCAA that is not merely entertaining but also fair and just — for Kevin Ware, and for thousands of vulnerable athletes whose stories will never have the same profile.


Interview: Michael LeRoy on Collective Bargaining and the NCAA — Part One

The first piece I wrote for Forward Passing was about collective bargaining in college athletics.  It was a reaction to the horrific injury suffered by Kevin Ware in the NCAA men’s basketball semifinal and the realization that Ware’s college education and health care costs were not guaranteed under NCAA regulations.  In the piece, I quoted Professor Michael LeRoy of the University of Illinois, who talks about the ‘invisible labor market’ in which college athletes participate.  I had the opportunity to speak with Professor LeRoy soon after to go into greater detail about his research.  Here is Part 1 of that interview from April 12th, 2013, edited only for readability; Part 2 can be found here.

You talk about the ‘credible threat of unionization’ that’s required for NCAA athletes to get the benefits of collective bargaining. Do you think for that to be effective, it requires the athletes be recognized as employees under the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act]?

I don’t. I think that if a state law were proposed and got a hearing in front of a committee that in effect extended collective bargaining rights, or an approximation of that, it would put a lot of pressure on the NCAA to provide the reforms I discuss.

So you think it’s more likely to occur on a state level, rather than on a national level?

I do, in large part because federal labor law exempts public sector employees, and much of college football is in a public sector setting – University of Alabama, Wisconsin, name your public university. So I do think it has to be located at the state level.

I read several analyses that also suggest Congressional legislation on a federal level would be a quicker way – instead of doing it in all fifty states, to do it on a federal level [i.e. to create an exception to existing labor law]. Do you think that’s feasible as well?

Not in the form of collective bargaining, because any idea that has the concept of collective bargaining would somehow have to relate to the existing labor laws. There are three existing federal labor laws. The National Labor Relations Act is the primary federal law. It pertains to the private sector – Boeing is an example of a private sector employer that’s under the NLRA. There is a Federal Labor Relations Act, which provides for federal workers to be unionized. An example of that is TSA [Transportation Security Administration]. Then you’ve got the Railway Labor Act. It’s another private sector law, and rail and air transport employees – for example, United employees – can be unionized.

So the federal labor law scene is fractured. It’s divided over three different types of occupational groups, and the NLRA specifically has an exemption for government employees. That’s why the federal government had to create its own legislation to provide for collective bargaining for federal workers back in the 1960s. So I’m not going to argue with people who say to the contrary – you could have some kind of representation law for college athletes at the federal level, but it could not be premised on collective bargaining, because it would conflict with the NLRA. You could have a federal labor law that somehow regulated the NCAA and said something to the effect of, ‘You have to provide health insurance to these guys beyond what you’re doing.’ But that’s not collective bargaining.

So if some form of collective action is possible, I’ve heard that what the athletes could credibly ask for ranges from just extended health benefits, to maybe greater expense accounts to pay for going through college, to even some form of wage to take advantage of all the income they’re producing for the schools. What do you think is feasible to ask for?

I think many of those are feasible. Financially, they’re all feasible. The question is, what fits under the tent of the student-athlete amateur model? The fact is, they’re not getting their full educational costs paid for. They get a scholarship, and it doesn’t cover everything they need.

So when you talk about a wage stipend or something, if it were in the form of covering all their educational expenses, the various fees that are tacked on, the book expenses, computer, various learning resources, that would be a way to say within the framework of the student-athlete model and improve their conditions. If you provided improved health insurance, that would be consistent with the student-athlete model. All you’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s be realistic about what it costs when an athlete breaks down physically, and let’s not shift any of the costs to him. Let’s have the member institution pay for that.’ So I do think they’re all feasible.

Michael LeRoy is a Professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois.

Poverty, Death, and Exploitation in Baseball… And What the MLBPA Isn’t Doing to Stop It

A Minor League prospect is suspended for 100 games for violating Major League Baseball’s policy on banned substances, despite never having failed a drug test.  A ballpark vendor works for $11,000 per year, going over three years without a raise as team profits soar.  A Dominican shortstop dies of a preventable illness at an MLB team’s training academy because the team doesn’t employ a doctor or athletic trainer.  What do these three cases have in common?

Absolutely nothing.  Because “absolutely nothing” is what the Major League Baseball Players Association has done to correct the rampant injustices perpetuated on the workers and players who make up the silent majority of the MLB’s profit machine.

Success and Failure

Founded in 1953, the MLBPA has been extraordinarily successful at preserving the rights of actual Major League players.  The union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports and paved the way for the modern free agency system by challenging the “reserve clause” (which prevented a player from joining any team other than the one he signed with).  It has kept MLB as the only major professional sports league in North America without a salary cap, making the best baseball players the highest-salaried athletes in the world.  And it’s proved that a strong union in professional sports doesn’t destroy the economics of the game (franchise values and television income are higher than ever before) or necessitate constant work-stoppages (the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS have combined for nine work stoppages in MLB’s current 19-year run of labor peace).

Even the MLBPA’s politics are fairly strong.  While it hasn’t exactly taken the lead on fighting for pro-union legislation, it did come out strongly against Arizona’s SB 1070 and joined the fight against the Michigan legislature’s attempt to impose right-to-work laws.  On some level, the Players Association understands that there is an organized labor movement, and that it has a responsibility to fight for broader pro-labor principles.

Where it fails as a union is its utter disinterest to expand its protections beyond its current membership, or to wield its influence to protect other workers in the baseball industry.  While most unions will fight to unionize new workplaces and fund workers’ centers to protect and organize non-members, the MLBPA is largely silent in attacking the inequities facing the underpowered majority of the baseball economy.  When you look at the extent of these injustices, the Players Association looks less like a triumph against the game’s moneyed elites and more like half of a great baseball cartel, working with the league and the owners to enrich itself on the backs of the underprivileged.

“No Obligation”

Cesar Carrillo’s case may be the most prominent at the moment, as the MLBPA may soon regret its lack of involvement in his defense.  Carrillo is a pitcher in the Detroit Tigers system, and though he never tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, he received a 100-game suspension from Major League Baseball for appearing on documents acquired from the Biogenesis clinic and lying about his relationship with the former head of Biogenesis (an anti-aging clinic shut down after the Miami New Times found that it supplied performance-enhancing drugs to athletes).  Because the collective bargaining agreement only covers major league players, Carrillo had nowhere to turn to appeal his suspension, and while the MLBPA couldn’t have filed an appeal on his behalf, they could have made more noise about MLB’s abandonment of due process.  This is in keeping with the Association’s historical treatment of minor league players — as threats to its current membership:

As it usually does, the MLBPA secured a minimum wage increase [in the latest collective bargaining agreement]; by 2014, the lowliest major leaguer will earn at least half a million dollars. But the labor deal also sets new limits on the bonuses paid in the amateur draft, which the players’ union gets to negotiate even though they don’t represent draftees. Indeed, today’s major leaguers rarely hesitate to sell out their eventual replacements: In the agreement that took hold in 2007, the players signed off on a change that kept minor leaguers out of free agency for an extra year. Gene Orza, who recently retired as the MLBPA’s No. 2 lawyer, says there’s nothing wrong with that. “We don’t represent them,” Orza told me, referring to minor leaguers, “and have no obligation.”

Orza is right: The only obligation the MLBPA has is to its actual members. As J. Gordon Hylton, an expert on the legal history of baseball, explained to me, there is a “growing awareness on the part of established baseball players that we don’t want to make the entry-level arrangement too good, because that’s money that might be going to mid-level or low-level [major-league] players.” With no one to represent the rookies, the money will always flow in one direction.

Perhaps emboldened by the ease with which they suspended Carrillo, MLB now wants to suspend major league players on the same charges and with the same evidence.  All of a sudden, the MLBPA “has every interest in both defending the rights of players and in defending the integrity of our joint program.”  This includes protecting players like Alex Rodriguez, who has already admitted to use of PEDs and avoided suspension.  He has more talent than Cesar Carrillo, however, so he’ll get the appeal that Carrillo was denied.

Concession Workers on Strike

Carrillo, at least, has had the opportunity to play in the major leagues, and he drew a $400,000 salary in 2009.  While that certainly doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be financially secure for life, or even that his suspension won’t put him in a difficult financial position, it is approximately 40 times what the average concessions employee at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants, can expect to earn in a year.  Slate magazine reports that “many of the concession workers live in low-income housing, they can travel up to two hours each direction in order to work an event, and they have multiple jobs to supplement their income.”  However, their last raise came over four years (and two Giants World Series victories) ago, and new restrictions being introduced in their contract negotiations threaten to make health care more difficult to attain.  When the concession workers held a vote to authorize a strike, it passed with 97% of the vote.

The concessions workers are not employees of the Giants but of external vendor Centerplate; however, that doesn’t make the Giants’ refusal to comment on negotiations any less shameful.  As a major client, putting any sort of pressure on Centerplate to treat their workers with respect would alter the fiscal calculus for the company.  The MLBPA has also been silent on the issue, though the high profile of its members would surely grab public attention and help to sway public opinion.  While the Players Association isn’t scared to show solidarity with other unions — and should be commended for doing so — it ignores rights violations that occur in the same workplace as its members.  Concessions workers are as fundamental to the magic and attraction of the ballpark experience as the players (“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!”), and the MLBPA should be among their most vocal supporters.

The workers are organized under Unite Here! Local 2, and you can learn about their struggle and take action at

A Preventable Death

Nothing compares to the terrible conditions in which South and Central American Major League prospects toil.  While the NCAA and Minor League Baseball systems may be exploitative in their own right, they at least provide a crucial level of protection for young players.  Outside of American laws and the public eye, however, nothing prevents teams from cutting every corner in their attempt to find and develop talent as cheaply as possible.  A shocking report from the March/April 2013 issue of Mother Jones illustrates just how bad things can get at team-sponsored training academies:

Conditions at some academies were substandard and even dangerous. When the Nationals’ [international scouting director Johnny] DiPuglia was starting out with the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1990s, his players slept eight to a room and navigated a field full of rocks and the occasional goat. In his book, Stealing Lives, [lawyer Arturo] Marcano told the story of a player named Alexi Quiroz and his path through the Chicago Cubs’ Dominican academy, a place the ballplayers referred to as “Vietnam.” There, 19 teenage boys shared one bathroom without running water, a drunk coach allegedly threatened them with a gun, and, after Quiroz separated his shoulder playing shortstop one day, he was treated by a street doctor who stomped on the joint to pop it back into place, ending his career.

If you’re one of the small fraction of academy attendees — 2.6% in Dominican academies — that actually graduates to play in the Major Leagues, you can rest assured that the MLBPA will fight for your income, benefits, and standard of living.  For everyone else, these sweatshop-like conditions are the closest they’ll come to their dreams of baseball glory.

Yewri Guillén, a shortstop in the Washington Nationals’ Dominican academy, almost became one of the lucky ones.  A hot prospect even at 16, he had been about to move to the United States and enter the Nationals’ minor league system when he received a year-long suspension from Major League Baseball for allegedly lying about his birthday.  While his lawyers fought the charge, Guillén lived and trained without pay at the academy.  His contract was finally authorized at the beginning of 2011, but Guillén was already experiencing the first symptoms of a violent illness.  From Mother Jones:

Guillén’s aunt and uncle rushed him to the Clínica Abreu, the capital’s best private hospital. But because his contract hadn’t been finalized he didn’t have health insurance, and he was refused treatment when his family couldn’t come up with the $1,300 admission fee. His aunt and uncle moved him to a more affordable Cuban-Dominican clinic nearby, where he was admitted on April 8. The doctors diagnosed bacterial meningitis. Guillén later had surgery to drain brain fluid, but the disease had progressed too far. On April 15, the day he was to leave for the United States, Yewri Guillén died.

… There wasn’t a certified athletic trainer, let alone a doctor, to evaluate Guillén at the Nationals’ academy, a spartan training camp with cinder-block dorms. No one from the team accompanied him to Santo Domingo or intervened when he couldn’t get into the Clínica Abreu. (The club didn’t cover the costs of his treatment until after he was admitted to the Cuban-Dominican clinic.) And following Guillén’s death, the club required his parents to sign a release before handing over his signing bonus and life insurance money—a document also stating that they would never sue the team or its employees.

The greatest interest that the Washington Nationals or Major League Baseball ever took in Yewri Guillén was to make sure that their own interests were covered — a story heard all too frequently in  corporate America.  The solution to corporate neglect is organized labor, but the only union in the industry shows no interest in expanding their purview to protect the most powerless.  Guillén was a boy who died a preventable death, and his blood, as well as the sweat and tears of thousands of exploited workers in across the baseball economy, stains the hands of Major League Baseball and the MLBPA.

A Moral Responsibility

The MLBPA did not spring fully-formed out of the mind of Marvin Miller or Donald Fehr.  The hard work of hundreds of union leaders and players is necessary to sustain and empower it, but it is far from sufficient.  The MLBPA exists because centuries of striking workers faced violence and poverty to nurture the labor movement in the United States, sacrificing themselves in ways most Major League players cannot possibly imagine.  Their right to sign bountiful contracts was paid for by New York garment workers and Colorado miners, who died needlessly through neglect or malice and showed this nation the importance of worker solidarity.

The Players Association must be the voice of organized labor in the baseball world.  It must support unions like Unite Here! Local 2 in their fight for fair treatment.  It must use its leverage to combat exploitation, from Major League stadiums to Caribbean sandlots.  By exercising their freedom to bargain collectively, the members of the MLBPA inherit a staggering moral responsibility; confining their efforts to only the most privileged members of the baseball hierarchy is a wanton betrayal.

Portsmouth FC: A Victory for Fans

Last week, I wrote about the recent rash of hooliganism in English soccer and expressed my concern that supporter violence could undermine the success of Millwall FC.  However, there’s another story about soccer fans in England that shows the power that a strong group of supporters can wield.  Portsmouth Football Club was on the verge of dissolution less that three years ago, but its supporters have unified to save the club from greedy ownership and secure its financial future.

“Closed Down and Liquidated”

Historically, Portsmouth has had a successful team.  Nicknamed “Pompey” by their fans, they won Football League titles in 1949 and 1950 and played in the Premier League as recently as 2010.  They also claimed their second FA Cup in 2008, defeating perennial powerhouse Manchester United in Old Trafford on the way.  However, the club’s success was founded on irresponsible financial footing; as they signed expensive players, they were taking on considerable debt.

The bottom fell out in 2010.  With unpaid liabilities of £120m, the club was forced into financial administration, and a round of unsuccessful talks with their creditors led them to announce that they were “likely… [to] be closed down and liquidated.”  The arch-villain was Sacha Gaydamak; as Portsmouth’s owner from 2006 to 2009, he abetted their financial mismanagement by paying excessive player salaries out of his own pocket.  After selling the team, he demanded immediate repayment, and his refusal to negotiate a reasonable timeline put the club on the brink of collapse.  A last-minute deal brought the club out of administration, but they re-entered in 2012, having failed to meet their payment schedule.  As the search for a new owner began yet again, Portsmouth fell into League One (the third-tier of English soccer, behind the Premier League and the Championship).

Supporters’ Trusts

Fearing another painful round of inept ownership,  the Pompey Supporters’ Trust stepped up with their own bid to purchase the club.  The “Supporters’ Trust” is a uniquely British creation; it holds ownership shares purchased by ordinary fans and coordinates the voting power of these shares to represent fan interests in team matters.  Paul Martin, writing in Soccer and Society, explains that establishing and maintaining trusts was encouraged by Tony Blair and the ‘New Labour’ movement as a way to foster an engaged civic environment.  They were made possible by the changing economics of English soccer in the 1990s.  To cut down on hooliganism and overcrowding (sometimes with tragic consequences), soccer stadiums eliminated their standing sections.  Soccer began attracting a “more affluent, middle-class, and family-oriented body of spectators” and aggressively entered the marketplace of liberal market economics.  By 2004, 63 out of the 92 teams in the top four divisions had associated Supporters’ Trusts, including 10 of 20 in the Premier League. [1]

The authority given to the Trusts ranges from nominal representation to majority control.  At the start of this season, two teams, AFC Wimbledon and Exeter City FC, were owned outright by the Trusts.  Portsmouth fans, facing the dissolution of their team, hoped to become the third; the Pompey Supporters’ Trust began collecting pledges of £1,000 each to raise the money for takeover.  The biggest obstacle became determining ownership of the stadium, and the fans had to take former owner Balram Chainrai to court in order to secure ownership of Fratton Park.  Once more, Portsmouth supporters were tormented by an unfeeling tycoon.

The suit drew significant media attention, however, and Portsmouth residents and the greater English soccer community put pressure Chainrai to reach a settlement.  On April 10th, he accepted £3 million and legal fees to sell Fratton Park to the Trust.  The deal was completed on April 19th, and Portsmouth moved out of administration and became the largest supporter-owned team in the nation.

“The Start of a Better Future”

Portsmouth’s glory has faded significantly from its decades of impropriety, and it’s an open question whether a club run by supporters will have the financial backing needed to return to the Premier League.  They do have the support of the Football League, however; the mandatory 10-point penalty for clubs in administration will be applied this season, so the team can start fresh in League Two (the fourth level on the soccer pyramid) next season.  League chairman Greg Clarke:

“I would like to welcome the Pompey Supporters’ Trust to the Football League and pay tribute to their efforts to save their club.

“They have galvanised the Club’s fans and the City of Portsmouth behind their cause and ensured that it continues to have a professional football club.

“However, the hard work is only just beginning and we will continue working with the new owners to help them establish a sustainable future for Portsmouth Football Club, so that it can put its long running financial troubles behind it for good.

“This has been an extremely challenging situation for the Football League, given the level of debt, the length of the administration and the issues surrounding the ownership of Fratton Park. I take my hat off to everyone involved, as it has taken significant amounts of hard work, clear thinking and resolve to achieve this outcome.

“Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Portsmouth supporters for giving their financial backing to the Trust’s rescue plan and for turning out in force throughout the administration as it has kept the club in business. Hopefully, this marks the start of a better future.”

It’s difficult to image a commissioner of an American sports league understanding so thoroughly what a team means to its community — NBA commissioner David Stern has made a hobby in recent years of helping billionaires purchase and relocate franchises.  A team becomes a transient tenant rather than an unshakable pillar of its community; is it any surprise that struggling teams have so much trouble filling their arenas?  The smallest market in major American professional sports has the only supporter-owned team in the nation, and it’s one of the most beloved and successful in history.  Isn’t there a lesson here for league executives?

I congratulate the Pompey Supporters’ Trust for kicking out the moguls and claiming ownership of their club, a victory they deserve on principle as well as legally.  Portsmouth FC will never again be a billionaire’s plaything.  Fans across the world should see the obvious joy of Pompey fans in earning their own team and ask themselves, “Why not us”?

[1] Martin, Paul. “Football, Community and Cooperation: A Critical Analysis of Supporter Trusts in England.” Soccer & Society 8.4 (2007): 636-53.

Soccer Hooliganism Returns to England

It could have been one of the best stories of the soccer season.  Based in a working-class section of London, Millwall FC lacks the glamor and stuffed trophy cases of its neighbors.  The team has barely touched the top level of English soccer and currently sits as the ninth-best team in the city alone (behind six London teams in the Premier League and two sitting above it in the second-division Football League Championship).  Yet a strong run through this year’s FA Cup, including a victory over Premier League team Aston Villa, saw Millwall playing in England’s national stadium in the tournament semi-finals, just two wins away from the biggest trophy in the team’s history and a chance to represent England in European competition.

Instead of celebrating small-club soccer, however, the April 13th match against Wigan Athletic will be remembered as yet another sorry chapter in Millwall’s long history of supporter violence.  The team’s 2-0 defeat was an afterthought to a twenty-minute brawl in the stands that led to bloodied fans and fourteen arrests.  This hasn’t been the only shameful incident from Millwall fans this year; an official was pelted with bottles after making a controversial decision in the Aston Villa game, and Leeds United striker El Hadji Diouf faced racial abuse in a match earlier this season.  Along with a riot that occurred at a Newcastle United game this weekend, these incidents have inspired fears that football hooliganism, which has been on the decline for several decades, might be on the upswing.  Sports Minister Hugh Robertson warned:

Back in the 70s and 80s we used to have the reputation that this happened time and time again. If anything, what the weekend does show is that the moment you take your eye off it, it pretty quickly reappears. You never entirely put the lid on all of this.

What can we learn from this weekend’s incidents?  Football hooliganism became a favorite subject for British sociologists as it became more common, but its reputation is as an “over-studied and poorly studied” phenomenon that’s been repeatedly explained but never well-defined.  The roots of spectator violence stretch to the Middle Ages, but a 2006 study by Frosdick and Newton suggest that its current prevalence is over-stated, and that it rarely takes the form of brawls like Saturday’s game.  They observe that incidents of hooliganism are reported by police in only one out of every twenty matches, that these incidents rarely involve injuries, and that spectator violence is far more likely to take place outside of the matches or after the games.  They conclude that “football hooliganism in England and Wales does not appear to be a very extensive social phenomenon.” [1]

Where hooliganism does occur, it should be understood as a reflection of broader socio-cultural divisions.  Frosdick and Newton quote a 2001 report from the Home Office Working Group on Football Disorder:

English football disorder cannot be removed from its wider social context. In many ways it is a manifestation of a wider social problem of alienated young males demonstrating their frustration in an anti-social and violent way.

It’s therefore instructive to examine the cultural history of Millwall, done most thoroughly in Garry Robson’s “No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care”: The Myth and Reality of Millwall Fandom.  Reviewing the book for Contemporary Sociology, Eric Dunning describes the neighborhood:

Millwall is a mainly working-class area of southeast London that has a long history of deprivation, roughness, violence, and crime… songs and chants of Millwall fans are expressive of a deeply sedimented, characteristically working-class, and characteristically rough/tough/violent masculine “habitus” or style.

Millwall’s social history outside of football is just as divisive.  In a 1993 council by-election, Millwall voters handed the racist British National Party its first electoral victory.  Yet Robson convincingly argues that Millwall’s social problems are “a direct function of material deprivation” and crime that plague poor urban areas across the United Kingdom and the world. [2]

This doesn’t excuse Millwall fans for their ugly display.  Photos have circulated in the media of a young girl bursting into tears as the fight rages around her — a poignant reminder of how supporter violence could alienate enough fans to keep the team from ever reaching its potential in top-flight English soccer.  However, as British politicians decry these scenes of violence, we should remember that the blame doesn’t rest solely on the team or the sport.  An economic system that impoverishes entire communities will spawn violence and sectarianism, and a real solution to hooliganism lies in a more equitable economic distribution.

[1] Frosdick, Steve, and Robert Newton. “The Nature and Extent of Football Hooliganism in England and Wales.” Soccer and Society 7.4 (2006): 403-22.

[2] Dunning, Eric. Rev. of “No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care”: The Myth and Reality of Millwall Fandom, by Garry Robson. Contemporary Sociology 31.5 (2002): 559-60.

A Personal Reflection on Newtown and Boston

I spent December 14th, 2012 rooted to my computer screen. I grew up about twenty minutes from Newtown, Connecticut; in the summer of 2011, I taught several SAT training class in the old Edmund Town Hall. I could never be sure which of the creaky, metal doors would be unlocked in the morning, so I often had to re-enter the building several times to snake my way to the classroom. If I got there early enough, I’d go next door to the antique deli and general-store and order an under-priced bacon,egg, and cheese for breakfast. My classroom had a beat-up chalkboard and a supply closet filled with basketballs and dried-out markers, and I’d have to rearrange the desks before class from whatever pattern last night’s town meeting left them in. It left me with a strong impression of a town that time forgot – that I had stumbled on a jewel of a village still touched with bygone purity.

Of course, this was just the fancy of a short-term visitor. My carefully-selected impressions of Newtown bore little relation to the actual community, and I was jolted out of this idealization in the harshest way possible. December 14th proved that Newtown was as susceptible to the lowest form of human brutality as any town, as 28 people would die at one person’s hand. As I watched the news with growing horror, I couldn’t escape the feeling I had been indirectly violated by the bullets, that many of my former students would probably lose family members in the shooting. At the same time, I felt an unsettling voyeurism – that I, who didn’t event know where Sandy Hook Elementary was located, had no right to personalize the tragedy that so many others would suffer that day.

Many of the Newtown families were in the crowd at yesterday’s Boston Marathon; Mile 26, where the bombings occurred, was dedicated to the victims of Sandy Hook.

I was writing in the kitchen when I got an alert through the ESPN ScoreCenter app telling me that two explosions had occurred at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Maia, my girlfriend, was watching television in the living room, and she changed the channel to see her hometown in distress. Maia works as a math teacher in a Boston middle school; we had met as university students just outside the city.

Whenever someone asks me where my college is located, I usually say “in Boston” as a geographical shorthand. This isn’t strictly true; in fact, I generally went into the city proper no more than once or twice a month. My Boston experience is deep, but highly specific. I’ve been a Red Sox fan since 2001 and attended the Boston Modern Orchestra Project many times. I have favorite bars and restaurants in the city, and I can navigate the MBTA with no trouble. However, my understanding of the importance of the Marathon was strictly intellectual – I had never actually stood along the route and cheered the runners, participating in the ceremony that binds the city together. Maia had to pull up a map of the city to show me where the bombing took place in relation to her house.

Again, I found myself glued to the news, watching a tragedy that I’m still not sure I have the right to mourn so personally.

On Christmas Day, I drove from my house in Connecticut to Maia’s family, a trip that takes me past the off-ramp to Newtown. For the first time since I taught there, I took the exit. I was looking for an open convenience store to grab some coffee, but I also wanted to see how the city was coping on their first holiday after the shooting – an urge that again made me feel like a voyeur. The overpass was decorated with a row of flags for the victims. Other than that, it could have been any other small town on Christmas morning. I scolded myself, asking what I had expected to see. Coffee in hand, I missed the turn to get back onto the highway and had to circle around again.

Some of the most amazing people I’ve met are Bostonians. Yesterday’s stories of heroism and selflessness are inspiring, and I have no doubt that the city will recover better than ever. Still, I’m not sure how I’ll perceive Boston when I go up to visit some friends next weekend. Will I notice details I hadn’t before? Will I perceive a depression or resoluteness among its citizens, and will that perception be genuine or just my way of processing a tragedy I can’t fully understand?

I feel sad for so many people today – those who were injured, the families of the deceased, all Bostonians who feels less secure in their homes, the residents of Newtown who saw terror invade their lives again. But a small part of me also feels sorry for myself, because I have never experienced Patriots’ Day, not in a way that lets me understand what yesterday’s attack truly means. I’ve never felt such intense affection for Boston before, and I’ve never felt like more of an outsider.

I have no doubt that life will go on in Boston and that its residents will continue to give of themselves as the city heals and rebuilds. The Boston Marathon will continue to unite the city in celebration of the human spirit. Terror will not prevail. I look forward to attending next year’s race for the first time in my life, and I know the limitless hospitality of Boston will welcome me, and thousands of others, as honored guests.

A Look at Wrestling, from High Schools to the Olympics

When I first heard that the International Olympic Committee voted to drop wrestling from the program of the 2020 Summer Games, I was shocked. Wrestling seems woven into the fabric of the Olympics Games, from their origins in Ancient Greece, to the foundation of the modern incarnation in 1896, to the multimedia extravaganza I spent far too much time watching this summer. On some level, it feels that neither the sport nor the Games even exist without the other, that some shared spirit will escape and dissolve if the two are ripped apart. A leaked internal analysis gave insight into the IOC’s decision, and while some of its objections were legitimate areas in need of reform (few categories for females, non-transparent judging policies), most lend credence to cynical notions of a purely profit-driven Olympics.

FILA, wrestling’s international governing body, is petitioning for a reconsideration, and I hope they prove successful. However, this should also be an opportunity for the wrestling community to reform the way the sport is managed. Along with the IOC’s areas of focus, there are two issue I think deserve greater attention:

Weight Cutting – Omnipresent in any sport that involves weight classes, “cutting” is the practice of rapidly losing weight right before a competition. This allows athletes the benefits of training with greater muscle mass while remaining qualified for a lighter weight class. Cutting can involve extreme measures such as forced sweating and minimizing fluid intake, and the health risks can include organ failure and long-term organ damage. During the 2008 Olympics, Daniel Cormier, the captain of the US Wrestling team, was hospitalized with kidney failure after an aggressive cutting regimen and was unable to compete in the Games.[1]

Fortunately, amateur and scholastic wrestling associations in the United States have been much more proactive than FILA in regulating cutting among competitors. FILA clearly needs to strengthen its policies if gold-medal contenders can’t even compete without risking their lives. However, the psychological pressures that come with needing to meet a certain weight exist even with regulation, and they can be particularly risky for younger wrestlers. Studies suggest that male wrestlers are more prone to bulimia nervosa than their peers, and the process of binging and purging can become a socially-reinforced behavior among members of a wrestling team. [2] Wrestling coaches on every level should be trained to recognize the signs of an eating disorder and should actively discourage all binging and purging behavior.

Antisocial behavior – The relationship between power sports and antisocial behaviors has been hotly debated in these sporting communities, but empirical evidence suggests that there may be a causative effect. A 2005 study showed that pre-adolescent and adolescent boys who participated in power sports were more likely to engage in both violent and non-violent (truency, vandalism, etc.) antisocial behaviors. Moreover, both beginning and continuing participation was linked with enhancing antisocial involvement, while ending participation was linked with a reduction.[3]

This certainly doesn’t mean that all wrestlers are bad or antisocial people, but it does suggest that every wrestling coach must view discouraging antisocial activity as a fundamental part of his job. Coaches are often the most trusted authority figures in an athlete’s life, and my experience is that youth coaches take pride in their position as leaders and role models. A coach who takes the time to learn about recognizing and combating bullying and other antisocial behaviors is a priceless asset for a team. By guarding against the risks inherent to wrestling (or any other sport), a good coach allows the athletes to take advantage of its undeniable health and psychological benefits.

The process of self-reflection has already started for FILA, which has responded to the IOC’s vote with a leadership change:

Swiss businessman Raphael Martinetti had run FILA for more than a decade. An autocratic leader, Martinetti ran the group with an iron fist. After the IOC vote, many of the organization’s members began to question his leadership.

A no-confidence vote was called at the FILA meeting in Thailand on Feb. 15, and Martinetti lost, 11 to 10. He then resigned.

Ousting an intrenched autocrat can’t be a bad thing, and I hope we see wrestling returned to the 2020 Olympic program with a reformed and refreshed understanding of itself. The IOC would restore one of the Games’ most democratic sports; a total of 29 nations won wrestling medals in London, including non-traditional sporting powers like Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia at the top of the table. The Olympics’ high-minded ideals would look a little less remote. And wrestling would benefit in the long run from the chance to reexamine itself – an opportunity that other sports which need it may never get.


[1]Thompson, Ron, and Roberta T. Sherman. “The Last Word on the 29th Olympiad: Redundant, Revealing, Remarkable, and Redundant.” Eating Disorders 17.1 (2009): 97-102.

[2]Baum, Antonia. “Eating Disorders in the Male Athlete.” Sports Medicine 36.1 (2006): 1-6.

[3]Endresen, Inger M., and Dan Olweus. “Participation in Power Sports and Antisocial Involvement in Preadolescent and Adolescent Boys.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 46.5 (2005): 468-78.