We've heard a lot about the "Olympic spirit" in recent weeks. This usually means the pride athletes take in their laboriously honed skills, and in representing their country on the world stage. "Olympic spirit" is a trait often grafted onto athletes who have no chance at a medal but go anyway.
It's part of the Olympic mythos that we play sports for the sheer love of them; that people who spend every day of their life for years on end preparing to compete at the highest level are just happy to be able to show off what they can do. It's an ideology that is embedded in our obsession with amateurism, at the Olympics and elsewhere. Sports are something we do for ourselves, on our own, as part of our very American pursuit of happiness. It's impolite to mention how expensive it is to become a pro athlete, even though between every event we're bombarded with commercials reminding us that only a few elite athletes get sponsorship dollars from global corporations like McDonald's and BP, and those athletes, as former Olympian Samantha Retrosi pointed out, are required to publicly praise their sponsors every chance they get.
College athletes are also expected to adhere to the cult of amateurism, to pretend along with the multi-million-dollar enterprise that is the NCAA that they are simply students, to appreciate the scholarships they get and demand nothing else. Minor league athletes are expected to take the tiny pay they do get and look grateful — after all, they're getting a chance to maybe make it to the big-time, to have a dream of A-Rod-style salaries. And yet, in recent weeks and months more and more athletes have begun to challenge the idea that they are not working, and that their work doesn't deserve to be compensated fairly.
The latest news on this front comes from baseball, where three former minor league players have sued Major League Baseball for violation of federal wage and hour standards. Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto, and Oliver Odle are seeking class certification and damages for minimum wage and overtime violations, state wage and hour violations, and more. According to the suit, minor league players are often paid less than $7,500 per year.
This comes on the heels of the first petition filed by NCAA athletes for union recognition; in January, the Northwestern football team signed union cards and filed for a National Labor Relations Board elections, stating in no uncertain terms that they are workers who have rights. And the class-action suit filed by Ed O'Bannon drew attention to the fact that in addition to the NCAA, many other businesses are profiting from the unpaid work that college athletes do.
"If I would have had the chance to take care of my family through college, I would have probably stayed in college," said Jadeveon Clowney, the University of South Carolina football player expected to be a top NFL draft pick. "They are selling our jerseys with our numbers and making money off of ticket sales, so I think college athletes should get paid."
Clowney gets right to the truth of the matter: Plenty of people are getting paid for college sports. They just aren't the players — the ones who risk their health and safety every time they take the field. Recent conversations about the NFL's concussion problem only underline this reality. For every wealthy player who never has to work again, there are many who never get paid at all, and even incredibly successful pro athletes often make less than you think. Russell Wilson, this year's Super Bowl-winning quarterback, made $526,217 (less than the man he beat, Peyton Manning, makes per game) last year, and is locked into a contract that holds him to $662,434 in 2014. That's still much, much more than most Americans earn, of course, but it's hardly enough to sustain him for the rest of his life if a career-ending injury comes next season.
"Many of us will have numerous injuries throughout our playing careers," said one Northwestern football player of the reasons for the union drive. "A group of those players will continue to feel the effects of those injuries long after their playing days are over. The goal is to have some sort of medical protection if we need surgeries stemming from injuries sustained while playing for our university."
Athletes are an extreme example, to be sure — most workers doing free labor in hopes of landing a job are not risking their future health and livelihoods to do it. But many different workers in today's economy are still creating value for businesses free of charge, accepting this idea that a job is not the thing you do to pay the bills but a thing you do because you love it. Canadian professor Kathleen Kuehn called it "hope labor," the idea that you will work in the hopes of maybe getting paid in the future. Guy Standing calls it "work-for-labor," the unremunerated things we do that are essential to get us access to decent jobs and future wages. Unpaid internships are on the rise, and the idea that a labor of love is a privilege that one has to "earn" through a period of uncompensated labor has been accepted by more bosses — even as workers, unable to pay the bills, begin pushing back. It suits business just fine, after all. If people will do this work for love, why bother paying them real money?
"What would you do to make this dream come true?" asked an NBC Olympic segment on, rather appropriately, Valentine's Day. Heart-wrenching sports stories of adversity overcome all too often involve money, and we're presented with them as more evidence that we can do anything we put our minds to. Yet how many people didn't get to the Olympic level at all because money simply got in the way? How much greater could the display of talent be if we invested in our athletes and didn't leave them hustling to raise their own funds and paying their own medical bills? DreamFuel, a new crowdfunding site, launched recently after its founder discovered that about 85 percent of Olympic hopefuls make less than $15,000 per year and that only a few top stars will ever get a corporate sponsorship. Is it part of the "Olympic spirit" that athletes must spend their time hustling for money on top of the hours and hours they put in to reach the top of their sport?
How much better could our society be if we didn't leave so many people struggling simply to be able to access work in the first place?
In the meantime, it's good to see athletes challenging the "labor of love" mindset that is evermore pervasive. It does not lessen the value of their efforts to acknowledge that what they do is work and that they deserve to be compensated for it.
As U.S. bobsledder Nick Cunningham told reporters, "We're happy and honored to be called Olympians, but this is a business trip."