by Glen Hamilton
The US won the gold medal at the IIHF Women’s World Championship on Friday in Michigan. They defeated Canada in the final in overtime. It was a thrilling match and a great victory, but the US team had an earlier triumph that spoke to the political moment in the US is in right now. The American women threatened to boycott the tournament if they did not receive better pay, conditions, and a more robust commitment to player development. After a “productive” first meeting, USA Hockey, the national organization who manage the team, began searching for replacements to field a team without the boycotting players. The last players cut from the squad were, of course, the first one’s called. When they refused to cooperate with management, public support for the players’ boycott began to grow. A social media campaign brought attention to the situation and USA Hockey capitulated three days before the competition and agreed to an arrangement very much akin to that of their defeated opponent, Canada.
Certainly, a women’s final involving Canada and the US has become very common in recent years. The two teams have now met eleven times in a row in a global final. An overtime victory by one of the sides has also become common with five of the last seven meetings ending in overtime. The two sides are very closely matched, but their dominance is a problem at the international body which would like more competition from Europe. Unfortunately, the Europeans have their work cut out for themselves. The talent pool in both North American countries is vast by comparison. In terms of registered female players, Canada has 87,000 and the US has 73,000. The next highest countries for player participation are Finland and Sweden, both of which have a little more than 5,000 players each in organized ice hockey. It’s not that surprises don’t happen, but North American domination of Women’s ice hockey is kind of a thing now.
Despite their similar positions in competitions, the teams’ relationship with their respective national bodies are in different worlds. Since 1998, Canada has had a central contracting system that provides the top players a steady income while they are playing for the country. There are incentive bonuses and player development included in their agreement as well. Meanwhile, the Americans were operating in an amateur-era time warp where management claimed that they did “not employ hockey players.” The US team was paid $1,000 a month for the six months before the Olympics, everything else was covered by a modest per diem. Most women’s national teams of any importance have moved to some sort of central contracting system. That is a very important development because women don’t have any lucrative major leagues to break in to and make millions. The WNBA is about as generous as it gets with average pay at only $51,000 a year. National bodies are becoming a big part of compensation for high level female players in many sports. USA Hockey was a real outlier this way. I suppose they thought that if they lost promising women players because they found their careers unsustainable, there was enough talent to get a silver medal. How is that for priorities!? BTW, did I mention that USA Hockey scored the lowest in gender diversity of any national organization? I am sure that had nothing to do with the decisions that led to a near fiasco last week.
Despite having some of the most successful and lucrative sports leagues in the world, outdated notions of the virtues of amateurism are surprisingly common in the US. In the past, when professional athletes were banned from competing in the Olympics the amateur bodies that were recognized by the IOC constantly propagated a critique of professional sport relative to national representation from 1950 to around 1990. The media found the stories of self-sacrifice, discipline and obedience very compelling and skillfully packaged them through the 1970s and 80s. No team encapsulated the American-style amateur fantasy than the 1980 US Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey team. To be fair, that effort was simply incredible, but it was a once in a lifetime victory. Nevertheless, it it left an imprint on American perception of what to expect from a national team, particularly for for ice hockey. It is a notion that seemed to resonate with the older men who dominate leadership positions in US Hockey. So much could have been avoided if they just listened to the voice of the 1980 team, captain Mike Eruzione, when he tweeted his support for the boycott the very same day it was called.
But USA Hockey management went looking for replacement players anyway. One would think that having climbed to the top of such a competitive heap might have worked to the players’ advantage in negotiating with their respective national organizations. But oddly, it is management that has leverage over the players instead.
Much of the players’ angst grows out of the 1987 NFL players strike. It went on for several weeks until management hired strikebreakers. Though the audiences in the stadia and on TV were considerably smaller than normal, the crowds were bigger than expected. Player solidarity melted away as high profile players crossed the picket lines on-camera.
Though the strike was a catastrophic public relations disaster for the American labor movement, it is still just one event that happened thirty years ago. What keeps it in the mind of an aspiring athlete is that apparently Corporate America loves the NFL strike narrative and doesn’t want anyone to forget it. Despite a lot of talk about the “liberal media,” it isn’t hard to find articles a quarter of a century later, talking about what a great bunch of guys the strike breakers were. Hollywood, an industry with its own labor issues, even made a shitty feel-good movie about strike breaking loosely based on the strike action. Professional athletes contemplating a work action are well aware, and frequently reminded what a “worst case scenario” might look like. Watching others fly the flag while you sit out because of money issues is almost too awfulto consider.
Ultimately, the team turned the tables and created a “worst case scenario” for management. They were hosting a tournament with no team and no support. The social media campaign was hardly “viral,” but it communicated to the right things to the right audience. International ice hockey has a strange schedule for a major team sport. Most operate with a quadrennial calendar that build to mega events like the World Cup or the Olympics every few years. This makes a player boycott difficult to maintain. Competitions either matter too little bring change, or they are so huge that any action becomes self-defeating. Ice hockey has a world title every year, a frequency that diminishes the tournament greatly. But it still matters enough to those involved.
A few final take aways. Romantic notions about amateurism got zero traction. Hopefully these outdated ideas will age out over time. In these times, scabs are not so heroic anymore. The labor movement is not as threatening and income inequality has changed dramatically since the 1980s. It also needs to be realized that a vast majority of high-level athletes in the world toil for very modest compensation. Wealthy stars are great, but they are hardly representative. Also, national teams are viewed differently than clubs. Selection is seen as an honor and hence shouldn’t be sullied by unreasonable wage demands. Thirty years after the end of amateurism, sports bodies in are discovering that that sensibility applies to management as well as the athletes.
The massive political demonstrations of January 21 of this year put the wind in the sails of an effort like this. Support for getting the other half of the story out there was what made everything possible. Thinking globally, the IOC is always interested in American women, or at least their viewing patterns. Their television partners at NBC constantly tell us that their lucrative television contracts are linked to a female audience in the United States. NBC’s contract with the IOC is worth 7.65 billion dollars. If voice could be put behind those billions, there could be some changes coming.