Spanish and Italian strikes show the growth in sporting socialism

Rich Hook looks at the strikes that have gripped Italian and Spanish football and the US NBA and NFL and says sporting socialism is alive and well in those states.

Rich Hook is a freelance sports journalist; he blogs at The Sport Collective

“I am glad to know that there is a system of labour where the labourer can strike if he wants to.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1860

It’s unlikely Lincoln was thinking about protecting the earnings of multi-millionaire athletes but the kind of unionised action he encouraged is becoming a feature of many sports of late…

This summer has already seen lockouts in America’s NFL (now resolved) and NBA, while the opening weekends of La Liga and Serie A were both postponed following strike action by players’ unions – though play will resume in Spain this weekend; Italy, however, may not get under way till September 10.

As Ruwan Subasinghe discussed on these pages in March, player unions have always exerted a great deal of power in US sports but now some of the top stars of European football appear to have found their inner-Jack Jones. But are the actions of the AFE (Association of Spanish Footballers) and AIC (Italian Player’s Association) as laudable and principled as they initially seem?

The dispute between the AFE, led by Barcelona’s Carlos Puyol and Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas, and the SFP (Spanish League), centred on the players’ desire to see the value of their contracts honoured even if their clubs went bust.

Six Primera Liga sides – Real Zaragoza, Racing Santander, Real Mallorca, and the newly-promoted Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada – are among the 22 Spanish clubs currently in some form of bankruptcy. The whole league has suffered from reckless overspending as part of the ‘footballing arms race’ – Real took out a €100m loan just to buy one player in 2009.

A recent University of Barcelona study showed that at the end of the 2009/10 season, the combined debt of Spain’s top 20 teams stood at €3.53billion – more than double revenue of €1.6bn.

While Spain’s leading two, Barça and Real, are amongst the most indebted clubs in Europe – both with debts of roughly €340m – they are protected by their ‘support network’ of obliging banks, well-connected owners with ‘fans’ in high places and unbalanced television revenue. This makes their actions in forcing the SFP to set up a guaranteed fund of €50m to cover unpaid wages of 200 players on other teams appear quite collectivist.

However, Barça and Real need the other teams to maintain the integrity of the ‘product’ they sell so lucratively to TV at the moment, especially since the removal of the ‘Beckham Law’, a system which offered huge tax breaks to foreigners earning more than €600,000 p/a.

In reality, it is the Clásico rivals who have done most to damage the league with their individual television deals.

According to SFP vice-president, Javier Tebas:

“The lack of a [collective] centralised deal is the biggest problem we face.”

In 2008/09, Sevilla finished third in the league behind Barça and Real but earned €110m less in TV revenue. Europe’s other major leagues – England, Germany, and Italy – have some form of collective revenue deal so that even the Premier League’s bottom club that season, Portsmouth, earned more than Sevilla.

Their sporting director, Ramon Monchi, says:

“We need to avoid trying to compete with [Real] Madrid and Barcelona and sinking ourselves.”

So while Barça and Real’s stars hit the picket-line for the collective good, unless they fully embrace union ideals of equality they will continue to damage their fellow professionals.

As Osasuna’s President Patxi Izco tells the Guardian:

“I fear a financial meltdown. Football is seriously ill.”

The situation is equally difficult in Italy, where just yesterday talks between AIC and Lega (Italian Football League) over a new collective agreement dramatically broke down meaning this weekend’s fixtures will not go ahead, as Gazzetta reports.

The Italian players may receive more public sympathy as they have sacrificed a week’s wages to contest proposals allowing clubs to force players to move in the final year of their contract or train on their own and banning players from making non-football earnings. Although they are also trying to avoid paying high-earners’ tax, so you couldn’t say they have gone entirely socialist, but three years of active union engagement behind the scenes has given the AIC a strong position.

Both unions have demonstrated the power they hold, but unlike the NFLPA (American football) and NBPA (basketball), they have yet to use this power outside their own field.

During the NFL lockout, the players’ association lent their support to strikes by Wisconsin public sector workers, California country club staff and Indianapolis hotel workers and in return the players’ unions in hockey, basketball and baseball gave the NFLPA their backing.

For a country with just 12 per cent union density it’s impressive for a group of the highest earnings to say:

“When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps all workers by raising community standards.”

This spirit is yet to spread to English sport, where Premier League players like William Gallas and Luka Modric are more inclined to threaten to score own goals or refuse to play in order to force through lucrative transfers. Only more socially conscious footballers, like Rio Ferdinand, are even prepared to comment on wider issues such as the riots.

What the AFE and AIC have shown is that it is possible for unions to still have an impact in the modern age with a desire to agree shared terms for all ‘workers’ in their field. Both leagues still have a way to go, with an effective collective agreement based on greater revenue sharing across the league needed (like the new NFL CBA) but they have shown the way forward for the Premier League.

Rather than going on ‘personal strikes’ (e.g. Pierre van Hooijdonk) to engineer transfers they could work together to improve average earnings across the Football League pyramid though it may take a mass-debt situation like in La Liga for this to happen.

Then if they get their own leagues in order, they might even start to come out in support of workers in other industries especially given the economic crisis in the PIIGGS countries.

It would definitely be the first time ‘Honest Abe’ and ‘Cashley Cole’ had anything in common.

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