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Superstar Power

Shouldn’t the most prominent union members in the world find ways to support the labor movement?

The National Basketball Association is having a moment. As the National Football League grapples with culture wars and the lingering effects of traumatic brain injury, the NBA has seen ratings surge. And this year’s playoffs have had their fair share of compelling storylines: the unexpected pluck of the injury-riddled Boston Celtics, the peerless dominance of thirty-three-year-old LeBron James in Cleveland, and the strenuous attempt of the Houston Rockets to dethrone the mighty Golden State Warriors.

When we watch the NBA, we’re not just seeing some of the world’s most creative and accomplished athletes in action. They’re also some of the most high-profile union members in the world. Even though the average player salary tops $5 million a year, they’re still workers beholden to team owners. And yet, for the most part, the athletes are not seen as “workers” or as union members—unless they’re involved in a strike or a lockout. Even then, it’s hard for the ordinary worker to identify with them as employees. That dynamic is often noted; a question that gets little attention, though, is the obverse: how much do professional unionized athletes identify with other, less fortunate and less powerful workers? Do their unions have a role to play in the wider labor movement?

As unions in American professional sports go, the National Basketball Players Association, or NBPA, falls somewhere in the middle of the power spectrum—stronger than football’s neutered NFLPA but weaker than baseball’s MLBPA, which at times appears to have a stranglehold on the league. But given the NBA’s increased prominence, as well as the involvement of such superstars as Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry on the union’s executive committee, the current NBPA is an indispensable part of the sports landscape.

It’s also a relatively successful union. While a more equitable split of the money raked in by the league has remained beyond the NBPA’s grasp, it has made some important gains: bolstering pensions and insurance for retired players, improving the behind-the-scenes committees that determine how the league sets and enforces in-game protocol, and winning higher minimum salaries for league journeymen. But advancing the cause of a specific subset of workers is only part of the job of a union. And when it comes to showing worker solidarity—taking full advantage of its platform to advocate for a broader labor struggle—the NBPA has proven curiously reticent.

NBA players are some of the most high-profile union members in the world.

To be fair, the NBPA has at times made public statements of solidarity via social media. Most recently, they professed their support for the Vox Union and, some years ago, for organizing efforts by fellow pros in Greece and Spain. But it’s notable that they’ve been silent on this year’s wave of teacher’s strikes, as well as other high-profile labor causes. By contrast, the NFLPA and MLBPA are more vocal in their support of broader labor struggles. Last year, when Minneapolis was preparing to host the Super Bowl, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent a letter expressing support for striking bakery workers in the city, as well as teamsters considering a strike at the University of Minnesota. “The NFLPA is a labor union,” wrote Smith. “In that regard, we do what is necessary to protect the rights of our members and support the efforts of other unionized workers across America.” Some of this may have to do with the fact that, unlike the NFLPA (which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO), the NBPA is unaffiliated. But their highly selective, and at times seemingly random, approach to solidarity, raises some important questions about what kind of union they are and whose interests they serve.

The NBPA was founded in 1954 at a time when players were so poorly compensated that many of them had to work second jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. Over the next two decades, it scored key victories that benefited all players, most notably the right to choose one’s employer via free agency. But in the late 1970s, star salaries boomed while the rest of the league failed to benefit from the owners’ newfound largesse. This created two distinct castes within the NBPA—the stars and the rank and file—whose interests would diverge over the years. Stars, often spurred on by their cutthroat agents, were concerned chiefly with their own skyrocketing salaries—even if it came at the expense of other players’ compensation. That left the rank and file to pursue collective gains like higher minimum salaries. It also became clear that stars, who at this point functioned as semi-autonomous brands, had a vested interest in the overall order of the league. For them, antagonism was quite literally bad for business.

In what would become a disturbing pattern, stars’ interests overlapped with those of the owners rather than with their fellow workers. During a brief lockout in the 1995 off-season, a group helmed by Michael Jordan and Knicks All-Star Patrick Ewing even led an effort to decertify the union. But it was the six-month-long lockout in 1998, which cost the league the first half of the 1998-99 season, that proved decisive. When an agreement was reached, star salaries had been capped but minimum salaries had been raised. It was a defeat for the stars and a win for the rank and file. Stars remained members of the union but no longer played an active role in it. For well more than a decade, the NBPA was run by a series of well-meaning veterans from the rank and file. It was also effectively diminished.

The NBPA operates at a power deficit because of its post-1998 reluctance to strike. Work stoppages are public relations disasters for the players, who, for reasons having to do with everything from their visibility to a predictable resentment of young black millionaires, end up shouldering the blame. Given this aversion to employing real power, the NBPA has to resort to other tactics, which is why the involvement of stars (or, during this period, a lack of involvement) becomes key. In theory, star players wield no more power than the rank and file. But in practice, owners need to curry favor with stars. They compete for the service of the top players in free agency, and a disgruntled star can easily force a trade before his contract is up. What’s more, as much as stars’ personal brands are determined by the “health of the league,” the league needs them to be enthusiastic ambassadors in order to thrive. Star power is soft power, rather than actual leverage, but it’s a form of power nonetheless, and the key one available to the NBPA.

After a 2011 lockout that again delayed the start of the regular season and resulted in the NBPA losing ground, stars returned en masse to the union. Big names like James and Chris Paul took on leadership roles. And since then, the NBPA has been more robust and effective. It’s also noteworthy that the union in 2014 hired Michele Roberts as its executive director; she became the first woman to head a major American sports union and, compared to her predecessors, Roberts has been outspoken and unflinching in her criticism of the current system. However, the current, star-driven incarnation of the NBPA owes its success not to a newfound radicalism, but to the premium placed on the “health of the league.” James, Chris Paul, or Stephen Curry may have the best interests of all players in mind. But they are able to make gains—and are limited in the gains they will go to the mat for—by their ability to, in effect, mediate between owners and the rank and file. Also, unlike past union leadership, they have the ear of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, which adds another variable into the equation.

The NBPA can never be too much of a union, or else it runs the risk of offending the very forces with whom it must make an uneasy peace.

As in any industry, the health of the business matters; every player wants the NBA to thrive, especially as free agents’ salaries are determined by the overall amount of money the league rakes in. But for stars, their stake in the “health of the league” goes further. They need the NBA’s brand to be strong on a day-by-day basis and for fans to stay active and engaged. For better or worse, they can see both sides of the class struggle and their actions reflect this dualism. The NBPA has, as of late, made gains that benefit all players—many of which were undoubtedly spurred by the stars’ power and relationships. But there have also been subtle tweaks to the collective bargaining agreement aimed solely at pleasing the stars. James and his ilk simultaneously empower the NBPA, make life easier for the owners, and advance their own niche interests.

In light of this dynamic, the NBPA’s relationship with a broader struggle starts to make more sense. They are a union whose current strength is premised on moderation, on a star caste that wants to make nice with owners—in fact, some players identify, often aspirationally, with owners. Per usual, stars want to emulate Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Hornets; James, among others, has expressed interest in one day owning a team, and currently owns a stake in the Liverpool Football Club, putting him on the owners’ side in a parallel sports league on the other side of the Atlantic. The NBPA can never be too much of a union, or else it runs the risk of offending the very forces with whom it must make an uneasy peace—if not actively join up with someday. Pledging solidarity with, say, the teachers’ strikes would align them with a kind of action that they sedulously avoid, jeopardizing not only their carefully calibrated arrangement but their long-term plans as individuals. (It should be noted that no one is agitating for the players collectively seizing the means of production.)

This explains the NBPA’s position but it by no means justifies it. A strong union is supposed to strengthen labor writ large, not isolate itself in order to consolidate its position and shield itself from risk. The NFLPA and MLBPA, who have to contend with many of the same concerns, have no problem allying themselves with a broad(er) range of labor causes. It’s also ironic, given that NBA players have earned something of a reputation for being socially conscious, that they have a union that’s proven reluctant to demonstrate wider solidarity.

At least one player, reigning-MVP Russell Westbrook, has expressed support of the striking educators in his adopted home state. Westbrook, who is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s player representative to the NBPA, was asked if he backed the teachers in their fight for better wages and working conditions. “I’m definitely all in for that,” he declared. Imagine if the solidarity expressed by Westbrook took collective, organized form, and if the NBPA—an organization with national prominence and clout—had stood in support for teachers’ unions in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and West Virginia when they were pushing for better pay and benefits.

The NBA is made up of young men who may not have grown up in union families; but they are quickly educated in the ways that collective bargaining agreements protect their rights and earnings. What will they have to say when other workers lose important bargaining rights, as many public employees did in Wisconsin after the legislature there passed the notorious Act 10 in 2011? In June, just as the NBA season winds up, the U.S. Supreme Court may well open a new season of assaults on collective bargaining—by ruling that public workers no longer can be required to pay union dues, even as they benefit from their union’s negotiated contracts. What will members of the NBPA be thinking as another crippling blow is struck against organized labor? It’s difficult to say—when we reached out to the NBPA to ask a few questions like these, we were informed no union representative would be available to comment.

You might expect the NBPA to help lead the way for other unions, but we don’t even know if such concerns are discussed among players, or whether the union has considered programs to keep members informed on labor issues beyond the world of professional sports. Perhaps the movement will have to come from the other direction; maybe there’s hope that other workers (teachers?) could galvanize the players. But it would help if the NBPA would encourage them to pay attention.