“I encouraged the players to treat the union as their union, not my union, or anybody else’s union.”
Thus spoke Marvin Miller, head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association for 16 tumultuous years, beginning in 1966. Marvin Miller died on Tuesday at the age of 95. Perhaps no one has had a greater impact on Major League Baseball and pro sports in general than Miller, who led the ballplayers out from under the reserve clause, which prevented them from seeking fair market value for their services, and into the age of free agency, which has made many of them extremely wealthy.
Though most of those celebrating the life of Marvin Miller this week looked back on his accomplishments, Sports Illustrated writer Michael Rosenberg, who’d spoken with the former union leader many times over the past few decades, chose to remind his readers of Miller’s sentiments regarding a group of athletes he felt still needed leadership and organization, today’s college football and basketball players.
“Well, he said they were clearly employees, and they’re clearly being exploited for the universities to bring in money,” Rosenberg said. “The problem, he said, is that Congress in unlikely to do something about it because college sports are so popular. And a court would just say, ‘hey, they’re not employees, they’re not covered under the law.’”
If ever the time was ripe for a Marvin Miller-type advocate to materialize and begin educating and organizing college athletes in the so-called revenue sports, that time would seem to be now, at least according to Rosenberg.
“Well, one thing that’s fundamentally changed is college sports are not even pretending that this is not a business anymore. I mean, you have schools jumping leagues and saying, ‘hey, we don’t care about history, we don’t care about tradition. We just need more money.’ So I do think the atmosphere is there for someone to step in and do it. But that would take a lot of work, because if you’re a Congressman from Alabama, do you really want to change a situation that has Alabama looking at possibly playing in a national title game? I don’t think you do.”
It always is difficult. It’s also difficult to summon and maintain the energy, the passion, and the patience to fight and eventually prevail over a system full of flaws and inequities that have been accepted simply because they have been in place for a long time. Marvin Miller had the necessary energy, passion, and patience, and to the benefit of the members of the union he built, he prevailed.