Athlete representatives in the U.S. Olympic movement recently met in the basement of an airport hotel in Chicago to discuss the next step in mobilizing against their respective chartered national governing bodies and the USOC—creating a union.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Athletes’ Advisory Council (AAC), a volunteer-led entity comprised of former athletes that aims to represent athletes’ interest to the USOC, met with both the newish USOC head, Sarah Hirshland, and Donald Fehr, who helped lead the Major League Baseball Players Association during its contentious fights with ownership in the 1990s. Hirshland, despite numerous promises to reform, represents the status quo, in which administrators are the primary actors. Fehr, on the other hand, suggests that Olympic athletes are no longer content to keep talking to the USOC and hoping for change. Simply bringing in someone like Fehr, even for a conversation, points to a new and more aggressive set of tactics from Olympians as they square off with U.S. Olympic overlords.
“Just having him here, it lends a different level of credibility,” Han Xiao, a former table tennis athlete and chairman of the AAC, told the Journal. “It recognizes that (athlete) leadership is serious.”
I spoke to Xiao about unionization last year, shortly after he testified in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. While he made clear that he saw the potential of organizing and collective bargaining, he also made note of the challenges faced by athletes in Olympic sports. “Athletes have been talking about the concept of unionizing for a long time,” he told me. “The issue is that it’s very difficult to organize. I sort of mentioned and alluded that individual athletes really don’t have any power. It’s very easy to retaliate against an individual athlete. So that’s also a key part of the problem.” Athletes in Olympic sports have so few opportunities to compete and excel—the Olympics only come around once every four years, after all—that it makes it all the more daunting to consider organizing against the very national governing body that will determine whether or not you’ll get a chance to live your Olympic dream.
Also, Xiao pointed out that Olympic athletes generally do not feel like they’re part of a cohesive unit despite all of the USOC’s “Team USA” branding and merch; this is especially true if you’re participating in a non-team sport, such as figure skating or gymnastics. “We’re in a really weird situation where most of us aren’t actual employees,” he said. “You can call us individual contractors.”
Despite these challenges, Xiao believed even then that working towards the kind of true athlete power that would come from organizing was a worthwhile goal. “There are athletes in some of the sports that have organized and have sort of collective bargaining, so it’s something to definitely continue working on,” he said. Xiao pointed to how the U.S. women’s hockey team organized around issues of pay and funding for their developmental programs and then won those concessions by threatening to boycott the 2017 world championships.
When asked by the Journal to comment on the possibility of Olympic athletes forming a union, Hirshland “stressed the importance of ‘meaningful athlete participation and contribution’ and the desire to ‘modernize our governance.’”
Athletes like Katie Uhlaender, who is an Olympian in skeleton, didn’t buy that the USOC was sincere in their overtures to athletes and the AAC. “Frankly, the athletes are seen as products,” said Uhlaender. She said that any solution would come from outside the USOC, not from within, with action from Congress or from the creation of professional advocacy. (The AAC is comprised entirely of volunteers.)
That solution might look something like a union.