Who remembers the NHL lockout in 2012? Most people who read this blog, probably. I remember all the ducking and feinting, the inevitable delay to the start of the season, each side blaming each other, arguments being played out in actual press and blog-press, and so on and so forth. But what I also remember is the reaction to the NHLPA’s collective bargaining strategy – namely, I remember a lot of people blaming players for not taking the deals the NHL offered. They were, after all, making millions; why were they insisting on depriving fans of a season?
You might recognize this sort of attitude as being explicitly anti-labor in an old-timey robber baron way; if you’re a mindless servant to the causes of deregulated enterprise, you might not. (Kidding. Mostly.) But it’s true that how work stoppages are perceived often change over time, or relative to the inconvenience they cause people using the product no longer being produced. See, for example, the teacher’s union strike in Chicago , or any number of public transit or cab strikes. Often, our sympathy for workers – or in sports’ case, players – is commensurate to how inconvenienced we are by them deciding to withhold their work for a while.
Sports in general occupy an uneasy space in the world of work. People can beat each other up on the ice, even gravely injure one another and not face legal consequences. Team-adjacent employees can be exploited. Wives and girlfriends are put in tenuous situations, exposed to everything from locational instability to intimate partner violence, and are expected to sacrifice for the good of their husbands’ teams.
Making money from sports starts early on. The OHL, for example, employs kids as young as 16. Of course, they’re not technically employees – but they receive a stipend, and the OHL makes money from them. The NCAA works a similar system for colleges in the US: athletes get tuition and expenses paid, and the NCAA makes money from both their public personas and their work on the field, court, or rink. Various people in various mediums have questioned the morality and even the legality of these setups for years, but what often goes unacknowledged is that in the lower-cash world of women’s sports, labor becomes that much more valuable.
Let’s circle back around to the lockout. The CWHL was functioning that entire time, unpaid. I’ve written here before about the CWHL’s “love of the game” and “role model” narrative. Their commitment to the community can’t be questioned, nor can the heart-warming nature of the entertainment they provide. But because women’s hockey is continually called into question – its skill level, its competitiveness, its worthiness as entertainment and as work – a lot of media coverage of the CWHL comes across as condescending. It’s not work for these women, despite the fact that they’re contractually obligated to show up to practices and games. It’s something uncomfortably hovering on the line between hobby and work. They’re not amateur in expectations or skill, but the hours they put in, on and off the ice, are generally disregarded because they don’t hate what they’re doing. Love of the game is privileged over even using that work to put food on the table, much less making a profit from it as NHL players do.
Unfortunately for female athletes, devaluation of the work they put in isn’t commensurate to how risky it is. Girls and women are more prone to concussions than boys and men, and also just so happen to dominate a dangerous high-school sport in the United States – cheerleading, where participants are injured in under-supervised practices more than competitive events. It’s possible that my lady brain is more prone to injury than a strong man brain, but given the reality of women’s sports, it seems likely that concussions are a product of a paucity of care and coaching. Female athletes are far less likely to have access to elite anything: coaches, trainers, equipment, doctors. The line to more injuries is clear and stark. In hockey, Amanda Kessel is a recent example. Kessel was sidelined with a mysterious injury prior to the Olympics, came back just in time to play for the US, and has been off the ice since then with chronic concussion problems.
In women’s sports, even the most elite players experience the same kind of grind and disregard that fourth-liners do in the NHL. Those same fourth liners have made headlines in recent years by committing suicide. Let me be clear: those deaths are a tragedy and absolutely point to the NHL’s disregard for labor. But this disrespect is an issue at every level; with women’s sports being as devalued as they are, most female athletes have no chance of escaping the level where their health and autonomy is disregarded. Female players can wind up very sick or even disabled, with pretty much nothing monetary to show for it.
So, you’re a women’s hockey player. You can reasonably expect a grinding level of hard work, a high risk of injury, spotty access to new equipment and good doctors, and career prospects that are pretty much limited to college employment or a cobbled-together combination of endorsements and gigs with the IOC, hockey federations, and so on. There aren’t really millions to be made here. If you’re in charge of a fledgling women’s league, then, how do you behave? What lines do you draw?
Unfortunately, in the CWHL’s case, the answer to those questions appears to be, respectively, “poorly” and “almost none that don’t explicitly benefit us”.
It’s fairly common knowledge that last year’s canceled Blades games were related to a work stoppage. This summer, we’ve experienced near-continuous changes that relate to another league, the NWHL, starting up. The CWHL initially reacted to the NWHL’s existence with some language that hinted at litigiousness; since then, we’ve seen lower-profile players sign with the NWHL, while higher profile players like Duggan and Knight remain mostly mum about their intentions, attempted actions with the CWHL, and so on.
I’ve heard reports from various places, including sources of this blog’s writers, that the CWHL is blocking big name players. Their contracts allow for release with adequate notification. This is, according to a lawyer we spoke with, fairly common language for non-paying contracts. It basically opens the way for people to leave should a paying opportunity arise. It’s possible, I suppose, that the people who failed to notify the CWHL of their intentions in a timely manner are all big-name, valuable players. It’s possible that the CWHL fighting to retain people like Hilary Knight is only related to genuine respect for legality, and has nothing to do with Knight’s own reputation as someone who’s struggled with the CWHL, her high profile in the world of women’s hockey, or her presumed value in name recognition for any team she plays for. It’s possible – but not likely, because the CWHL hasn’t invented underhanded tactics to try to control players. They’re simply following in the footsteps of the big men’s leagues that have come before.
Again, the NHL is the most recent example of this. They had a work stoppage only 3 years ago. The negotiations that each side made during that work stoppage are largely the stuff of rumor, but each side made some negotiations public, and thus, a matter of public opinion. As previously mentioned, the NHL has its own problems with player health as well. They’re currently facing a class action lawsuit specifically citing mishandling of concussions.
But – and this is a big but – the NHL at least pays its players and has a union. They continue to react strongly to the possibility of competition, and that includes becoming combative with their employees – the players – when the time to renegotiate the CBA comes around. This behavior might be less than ideal, but it at least is accompanied by the players’ union having representation for their side. The CWHL, in contrast, appears to want the benefits of a competitive market without ever having to have substantive competition – for players or for fans.
In short, it’s wrong. Pressuring players to sign long-term, restrictive, non-paying contracts is wrong. Using those contracts to try and control big-name players is wrong. Obfuscating the role of labor representation – a union – is wrong. And the fact that the CWHL is a non-paying league, full of highly skilled Olympians who play in games resembling rec league matches more than professional bouts, only makes their refusal to treat their players fairly more cruel. I have long held that the CWHL doesn’t seem to think women’s hockey is a product that can be profitably sold; they’ve historically skimped on marketing and promotion. Seeing their reaction to a league that clearly disagrees with that business plan has been profoundly disappointing. Female athletes already encounter disrespect from various institutions and people. They shouldn’t get it from their own tiny leagues, as well.
Of course, this isn’t a non-fixable problem. The CWHL should be releasing players on equal footing if they’re not already. The CWHL has a players association (not a union, as the players are unpaid), and that PA should have a more visible voice. Information on player issues shouldn’t just come from the league, but also from the CWHLPA. And, of course, they should try to compete with what the NWHL has to offer players. There are signs that the CWHL is trying to do the latter, including increased front-of-office communication and better equipment supply for players, but they’ll need to sustain that momentum and build on it. As both a blogger and a fan, the single most exciting thing about the NWHL has been their willingness to sell their product: women’s hockey and the people who play it.
Promote the players. Promote the game. Make players feel valued and excited by what you have to offer them, and make fans feel respected and catered to. If you want to hold on to “role model” lingo, then by all means do, but go beyond being a charity league for little girls to cheer on. Women’s hockey is valuable because it’s fun to watch. Sell me on that idea, then sell me on the people I’ll be watching. And also, treat them like people whose work you value. It’s very, very possible to move beyond the current player-rights gridlock, and I’d be delighted to see the CWHL do so.