By Paul Gardner
The negotiations -- if that’s what they are -- going on between MLS and the players union are, of course, a mess. I’m afraid that’s the way it’s always been with this owners-players confrontation in American soccer.
Simply because an almost paralyzing uncertainty rules on both sides of the table. You have owners who are losing money and who don’t particularly want to increase the likelihood of bigger losses. But they’re also owners who know that if those losses are eventually to become profits, then MLS has to spend more money -- now -- to ensure that it becomes a stronger league able to compete with other soccer leagues, and other sports, both at home and abroad.
And you have players who feel -- quite rightly in most cases -- that they are not earning enough money, and that they have to do something about that now. But how far dare they go?
My sympathies, generally speaking, are with the underdogs -- the players -- but it needs to be said straight away that while they have a strong moral and emotional case, their arguments at the harsher level of business considerations are rather flimsy.
That is regrettable. I have witnessed two of these squabbles in the past, and on both occasions the players ended up as losers. In 1979 there was a brief five-day strike in the old NASL. It was a total shambles, with the players’ side hopelessly fragmented by internal disagreements, not least between the militant young American players and the hardly interested, and better paid, foreign loan players. Would the richer players go on strike to support the claims of their poorer colleagues? Could those poorer players really afford to embark on even a short strike?
The answer, rather quickly, was a resounding No to both questions. The key club, of course, was the New York Cosmos. If their players supported the strike, then the other clubs could be expected to follow. And support it they did. By a 20-2 vote. But that fiery enthusiasm barely lasted 24 hours. The following day the team was to fly for a game in Atlanta. They missed the flight because heated arguments were still going on -- with the team assembled at Giants Stadium, and union fireball Bobby Smith physically preventing players from boarding the bus to the airport. Eventually, all but a handful of players (all young Americans and non-starters) boarded the bus and went to the airport where a private jet awaited.
In 2000 the MLS Players Association took MLS to court to challenge the legality of its single entity format. Again, the players lost -- badly, for their case as presented in court was ludicrous. They had players claiming not to know that in other soccer countries -- e.g England or Italy -- Division 1 soccer was of a higher caliber than Division 2. And they had a mighty financial expert in Professor Andrew Zimbalist telling us how much more the MLS players would have earned if only the USSF would allow competing Division 1 leagues. Talk about pie in the sky.
And so, once more unto the breach go America’s pro soccer players. Alas, they have already been out-maneuvered by MLS, which has taken the high ground by letting everyone know that there will be no lockout from their side. Leaving the players with no resource other than to threaten a strike -- I don’t know how else to interpret the statement by Bob Foose, the MLS Players Union executive director, that "It will also be a shame if the league's refusal to improve its system results in a work stoppage." So, if the MLS season doesn’t start on March 25, it will be the players who are responsible. Or it will appear to be that way.
The main issue in the abortive 1979 strike was union recognition. The NASL was simply refusing to recognize the NASLPA. But added to that, there were contract issues that are still being argued about in today’s MLS wrangle: Non-guaranteed contracts, the two-year option clause, plus the inadequacy of the league’s basic wage.
The 1979 owners used the “nobody wins” argument against a strike. From the Cosmos General manager Krikor Yepremian came this: “I am opposed to a strike because it will hurt soccer in general. I think everyone will get hurt, players, clubs and the game.”
And the fans, too, one might add. At the negotiating table, little has changed. Everyone is well aware of the overall damage that a strike could do. The players’ case is no stronger, nor any weaker, than it was. On the face of it, the same considerations apply, with the owners holding most of the high cards.
Nevertheless, there is a new factor involved, one that does favor the players. MLS, an expanding league, needs a steady supply of skilled players. From where is it going to get them? The supply from within the USA is nothing more than a trickle. And the MLS’s own stingy minimum wage levels are quite likely to cause it to dry up all together -- as promising American youngsters prefer to make more money playing overseas.
Regardless of any union pressure, MLS knows perfectly well that if it continues to play Scrooge with a wage scale that is derisory by international standards, it can forget about ever being what its title claims, a Major League.
That is the dilemma for the owners. The parsimonious comfort of the single-entity safety-net vs. the need to spend -- and this in pro soccer, a venture that has a calamitous record of failure in the USA. For the players the dilemma comes from their frustration at having only limited bargaining power vs. knowing that their one powerful weapon -- a strike -- is a desperation measure that, if it is to be sustained, needs considerable funding. Where will that money come from?
MLS will no doubt win this one. But any victory can only be illusory. For if MLS believes that merely tweaking the status quo will solve its basic problem -- the necessity for it to compete in the capitalistic free-for-all that is the global soccer market -- then it’s hopelessly lost in cloud cuckoo land.