Sweatshop: The Exploitation of Junior Athletes

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Imagine for a second the thought of a multi-million dollar business where there are minimal to no labour costs.

I would think that was one of many thoughts running through the mind of Mike Priestner, the owner of Edmonton-based GO Auto, when he dropped a cool $9 million last week to purchase the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL. News stories such as the mysterious formation of the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association, and more recently the highly publicized “Autograph-Gate” scandal surrounding Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, have brought issue of junior athlete exploitation to the public forefront in a thunderous manner.

Let’s examine the case of the CHL: Essentially what we have are for-profit businesses (the 60 CHL teams) engaging the services of mostly teenage athletes to drive their profit. These athletes in return are provided with a weekly stipend in the range of $50, slightly higher for veteran players, and receive scholarships at a Canadian university should they elect to pursue that option within an 18-month period of time. Given the time the players put into workouts, practises, arduous travel and games, a worker ata Nike shoe factory in Bangladesh would mock the plight of these players. I would question why simple Canadian principles such as minimum wage laws, overtime pay or vacation pay do not seem to apply to junior owners and their athlete employees. These athletes, be it CHL hockey players or NCAA athletes, generally have one common motivation behind the supply of their services: pursuit of their athletic desires (i.e., be drafted by an NHL or other professional sports team) at the expense of academic interests. The athletes are effectively powerless at challenging the system because their entire future lies in the hands of those decision-makers who are employing their services. Without the platform on which to provide their athletic talents, many of them stand at levels in society significantly below their peers. What is scary for these athletes is that the vast majority of them fail to realize the dream they have sacrificed so much else for. In 2012, 99 CHL players were drafted by NHL teams. If we assume a 23-man roster for each of the 60 CHL teams, this amounts to a miniscule 7% of CHL players actually being drafted. This proportion is nearly identical for the number of NCAA Division I football players that get drafted by NFL teams in any given year. Unfortunately, NCAA athletes are prohibited by league rules from profiting in any way, and this limitation extends all the way to control over the type of job they can pursue while in school. Their hope appears to rest entirely on the minute chance of taking their athletic career to the next stage.

The CHL team owners on the other hand are estimated to bring in roughly $160 million of combined revenue between themselves. Of course, CHL representatives have claimed that owners’ investment in each player totals roughly $35,000-$40,000 per season, thereby providing adequate compensation. In 2011-2012, NCAA revenues totaled $871.6 million, a staggering amount by any standard. Forbes has estimated that NCAA student-athlete at a major school is receiving benefits in the form of scholarships, room & board, and training ranging from $50,000 to $125,000 depending on their sport and university classification. How then is this figure reconciled with the fact that the lost value over a four-year career for the average FBS football and men’s basketball player is $456,612 and $1,063,307, respectively. Further, the same study found that the average shortfall for EACH full-scholarship athlete was over $3,000. So are these players actually receiving an overall benefit as the schools would claim?

A common theme running at the top is that what can be seen in a criminal organization model. Use of their money and influence to dangle the dream of future riches in front of the impressionable eyes and mindsets of young athletes. When the program has derived the maximum value from that young teen, dump him and move on to the next in line of those impressionable young teens. If anyone in the hierarchy gets out of hand or tries to derive their own benefit, punish them severely at the macro-level as the WHL did to the Portland Winterhawks when they were found to be providing improper benefits to players, or, at the micro-level as the NCAA did to Johnny Manziel and Reggie Bush when they were found to be to deriving a personal financial benefit from their own fame. Of course, it would be ludicrous to suggest that such a benefit should be found anywhere but at the top.

There have been recent attempts by those outside the current scope of the junior programs to change the scheme. One includes the yet-to-be-determined fate of the aforementioned CHLPA. Another includes the ongoing lawsuit in the US against the NCAA, led by former NCAA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. The outcome of this case in particular will be quite intriguing as the group of players have accused the NCAA of using the players’ likeness and image to derive a multi-billion dollar media and entertainment benefit – a benefit that the players in question claim they should be entitled to. Any sort of ruling, judgment or settlement in the players’ favour would likely have a rippling effect throughout the junior sports landscape as the value of players to the economic engine of amateur athletic organizations such as the CHL and NCAA would no longer carry on marginalized and unrecognized.

What then are some additional mechanisms, beyond the scholarship, through which amateur sports organizations such as the CHL and NCAA can attribute a greater portion of their revenues to the players. I would suggest:

1. Extending the period of time in which a CHL player can utilize their university scholarship;

2. Providing graduate-degree scholarships for CHL and NCAA athletes so as to provide them with a platform from which to build the possibility of a financially successful future;

3. Increasing the stipend given to CHL players – The tangible feel of additional dollars in players’ hands would likely have the greatest immediate, psychological, effect and would send a strong message to the players and public that the leagues are taking positive steps to recognize the contributions of the players to the overall business;

4. Long-term medical benefits – In my last article, I talked about the long-term effects of concussions on athletes and how many NHL players have likely had concussions dating back to their junior hockey days. I would imagine this is true of players coming from the NCAA as well. As has been noted above, the majority of athletes from amateur athletic organizations never realize that big payday in professional sports. The only payday that was realized was the bank account of “Mike Priestner” or the “University of Michigan”. Yet many of these athletes are likely left dealing with the pains of labour they endured at the behest of their respective leagues – pains that are to be felt years into the future.

As always, your comments are welcomed and appreciated.

 

For Hockeyland Canada,

RK, Esq.

 

 

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2 responses to “Sweatshop: The Exploitation of Junior Athletes

  1. Nice article!

    I think both the CHL and NCAA were able to get away with this at the beginning was because the teens that play in their system are vulnerable. They for the most part are still in their formative education years, are not old enough to have had jobs prior to playing in these leagues, and are indoctrinated into believing the true privilege of playing junior hockey. As you have mentioned, they would do anything for a shot to pursue their ultimate dream of playing professional hockey, even at the expense of their future beyond hockey (which they may not be thinking about at all). Taylor Hall’s quote about this topic is interesting

    “I had a great time and can’t say enough good things about them, but I was making $44 a week. It is a little bit unfair” he went on to say “But when people (junior team owners) are making a lot of money, there should be a union.”

    It reflects the uneasy nature of this topic. On one hand, playing in the CHL is an absolute thrill for these teenagers… But for those players that are enlightened, it can be uncomfortable.

    That said, the CHLPA has largely failed because of the dubious history of their founders. When they came out a year ago, there was a rather mixed response from some of the players. Some recognized the injustice of the system, while others claimed they were happy for the hockey and the educational opportunities they were offered (although, realistically, how many teens would have the courage to speak out about the system that has provided them the opportunity). If you read articles about the CHLPA around that time, you will get a good sense about what the athletes that are used in this system actually think.

  2. Pingback: Employee vs. Contractor – The CHL Lawsuit | Hockeyland Canada·

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