Sports unions hit home runs, so far

America's major sports unions are growing up. In the past decade, unions in football, basketball, and baseball have made major gains. This week's settlement of a major-league baseball strike that stopped play for two days marks another notch in that growth.

Yet, as players returned to the diamond Thursday and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief, a troubling question popped up for the players:

Can sports unions continue their steady growth in power and influence? Or, as their relationship with management matures, is this growth likely to slow?

If the latest baseball settlement, announced Wednesday, is any indicator, the unions' influence hasn't peaked. The owners -- unable to cap player salaries and forced eventually to double their contribution to players' pensions -- are seen as losers in some quarters. Their main victory was minor: New ballplayers will have to play three years, instead of two, before being able to negotiate a raise through an arbitrator.

This latest strike outcome is significant because, of all the major sports unions, baseball may well be furthest along in its development.

``The players and the owners are on a pretty equal basis,'' says Glenn Wong, a sports law professor at the University of Massachusetts. Basketball players are not far behind, although that profession has something of a salary cap. Football players, Professor Wong says, are the furthest behind.

All this is a far cry from the early years of professional sports, when paternalistic owners had a virtual lock on a player's career.

``Players always perceived themselves as athletes and sportsmen,'' says Charles Grantham, executive vice-president of the National Basketball Players Association.

But this relationship began to change as sports itself changed. Profits went up, especially with the coming of television, and with the new money came new demands.

``All of a sudden, people began to say: `Gee, this sports thing is really a business,' '' Mr. Grantham says. This change in the nature of sports may well underlie growth of sports unions.

Players ``are no longer part of the family,'' says Frank H. Cassell, a professor of organization and policy at Northwestern University's Kellogg graduate management school. ``As sports has moved into a business, it has accumulated unions.''

This shift to a classic management-employee relationship has not come easily.

``They made us crawl real slow,'' says Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Association and a former player.

``When I came on, I thought it was all fun and games,'' he says of his rookie season with the Oakland Raiders in 1967. But ``somewhere along the way it switched from a sport into a business. . . . Some of the things we've had to fight for have been totally ridiculous -- things we were always supposed to have.''

A breakthrough for the unions came in the mid-1970s. Settlements stemming from court suits (in the case of football and basketball) and a landmark arbitrator's decision (in the case of baseball) paved the way for free agency, in which players began to be able to negotiate their own salaries.

The system now in place varies with each sport, but is somewhat similar to actors' unions, where negotiators set minimum salaries and benefit issues, but allow the stars to negotiate salaries above that.

The owners have tested the unions' strength ever since, but with little results so far, labor experts say. In 1982, for example, football players went on strike and made major gains. Average players' salaries doubled from 1981, reaching about $160,000 just three years later, according to the players' union. Basketball players last year averaged some $350,000. Baseball is slightly higher.

But future victories may not come so easily, labor experts say. ``I always believe there's a time and place [where] the union is more effective,'' says Wong.

The early victories of sports unions are typical of other relatively new unions, he says. But if classic economic theory holds true, at some point the pendulum will swing the other way as the two sides reach a rough equality in power.

Is that era approaching? Labor experts do not agree.

``In my estimation, they're in the growth stage,'' Mr. Cassell says.

``It will be interesting to see what happens,'' says Wong. ``I think you're reaching a point of stabilization already.''

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