Socialism and Sports

By Lee Levin

The two great loves of my father’s life were the Green Bay Packers and golf.  Every fall Sunday we worshipped at the altar of the Green and Gold.  My brother and I learned, at an early age, that we could only talk during commercials and half time.  Our Sunday routines created my love of armchair sports.  Today, in addition to following pro football, I watch college basketball and football, pro basketball, baseball and tennis.  Too often feminists and leftists dismiss the importance of sports in society and only focus on the machismo culture encouraged by professional/college athletics.  Although that culture is real to an alarming extent, I dare say it is also an elitist attitude that is not conducive to mass organizing and needs to be re-considered.

Team sports are not just about competition and rarely about individuals but also about how talented individuals can band together and succeed.  Players and coaches recognize this — the favorite saying is “There is no I in team.”  Despite the use of hockey as an example of individual prowess, it is very much a team sport.  The six players on the ice work as a unit to score goals.  Each position has a specific assignment.  If one player plays alone, the team loses. Professional hockey is a violent sport because the owners encourage fighting as a way to sell tickets.  Fighting is rare at lower levels.

My expertise lies more with football and basketball.  Both require players to cooperate.  Granted, there are stars on the teams but the stars succeed by meshing with other teammates.  Aaron Rodgers, considered by some the best quarterback in the league, is only as good as the offensive line that protects him for a sufficient amount of time so he can throw razor-sharp passes and score touchdowns.  In basketball, teams who play as a unit are more successful than teams who play as individuals.  The San Antonio Spurs have won four NBA championships over the past 10 years because the whole is better than the individuals.  The New York Knicks fail because Carmelo Anthony, the star, won’t share the ball.

The life lessons that children learn through participation in team sports are to respect others, cooperate with and support each other, and to let bygones be bygones.  Young girls can get embroiled in petty arguments that may lead to bullying and certainly lead to a rigid social hierarchy where girls on the bottom feel real pain.  However, through participation in organized sports, there is less social hierarchy and less bullying.

Those who did not grow up in a sports environment miss the community bonds which are created.  Go to any sports bar and you find complete strangers high five and hug each other after great plays.  People who attend the same bar to watch games come to know each other and find themselves talking about more than just the sport that brought them together.  Certainly, it is an opportunity to begin a discussion of working class politics because we have established our bona fides through our mutual support of THE TEAM.  Involvement in the sports culture is an organizing tool.

Furthermore, professional sports are a microcosm of the struggle for economic justice.   On the corporate side are the team owners[i]; billionaires every one, many too stupid to recognize that they know nothing about the game they own (football:  Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Dan Snyder of the Washington (enter racist team name here); basketball:  Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers; Jimmy Dolan of the New York Knicks).  Then there are the owners who believe their team ownership is a sure way to maximize personal profits (David Glass, (former CEO of Walmart), of the Kansas City Royals whose claim to fame is dooming his team to be the worst in the league for the past 18 years after reducing team payroll by 50 percent when he took over). 

And then there are the owners who believe they can feed at the public trough and get their stadiums built with tax money even though they can afford to build themselves, such as Clayton Bennett of the Oklahoma City Thunder, formerly the Seattle Supersonics.  This captain of industry, along with National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern, moved the team when they failed in their attempt to blackmail the citizens of Seattle into using tax dollars to build a new stadium; and Zygi Wilf, owner of the Minnesota Vikings, and Commissioner Rodger Goodell threatened to move the team to another locale if local state legislators did not approve using tax money to build Wilf a new stadium.  Citizens in the Twin Cities (where the team is located) had turned down two referendums on paying for the stadium in the past.  These owners[ii] have little regard for the communities that support their teams, not unlike corporations or hedge funds that buy businesses, milk the profits dry and then close up shop, leaving unemployment and a reduced tax base in their wake.

While players are paid well compared to a work-a-day guy or gal, their pay scale does not compare to the owners’ profits.  More importantly, their high salaries are achieved through collective bargaining.  The Major League Players Association[iii] is the strongest professional sports union in the country.  Originally led by Marvin Miller, a former economist and negotiator for the United Steel Workers, the union raised salaries, negotiated an arbitration clause (which took the disposition of grievances away from the Commissioner (an employee of team owners) and gave it to a neutral third party.  Miller also negotiated the first free agency clause in major league sports.  An enormous victory for the players — no longer did the owners control where they worked. 

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has been the weakest, historically.  There were several unsuccessful strike efforts during the 1980’s, and the last one led to the first use of scabs.  Under the reign of Gene Upshaw, a former Oakland Raider, there was “labor peace.”  Complaints that the peace came at the expense of the players swirled.  In 2011, the league announced that if an agreement wasn’t reached by March 1, the league would lock out the players[iv].  The players were prepared and, ultimately, won. 

First, the leadership of the NFLPA took a page out of Marvin Miller’s playbook and ensured that the best players were team delegates and alternates.  This included Drew Brees, star quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, as the most outspoken union supporter.  Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers  was an alternate delegate.  Another successful union tactic was a focus on health and safety issues instead of money.  The NFLPA made a compelling argument about the dangerousness of the sport, the short tenure of players, and the lack of retiree health benefits.  For the first time, the union spoke up for retiree rights.  A brilliant community-based strategy raised awareness.  In the settlement, the players succeeded in preventing the league from instituting an 18 game schedule — two more than the current schedule — a top management priority.  An 18-game schedule is a horrible idea for players as it exposes them to even more possible career ending injuries.

All is not sugar and light with professional sports unions.  The National Basketball Players Association (NBAPA), also faced with a lockout, signed an agreement that gave the owners over $5 billion in give-backs.  Unlike the football players, the union focused on money.  There was no community outreach, nor were the best players in leadership roles.  This epic failure can be attributed to the incompetence of the NBAPA executive director.

Like it or not, sports are front and center in American life for both women and men.  Given our fascination, we must recognize the potential fandom represents in educating and organizing folks to join us in advocating for social democracy.  The world of organized sports is a microcosm of corporations vs. workers and community.  This meme can also be exploited to our benefit.  We must take advantage of the opportunity[v]!

Lee_Levin2.jpgLee Levin worked for unions for 20 years, including eight years as executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Currently, she is a full-time mom and volunteer coordinator for national DSA

 This essay is a response to prior post. The Blackhawks, Masculinity Studies, and Socialism. 


[i] The only community-owned team is the Green Bay Packers.  In the mid 1950’s the team offered stock in the team to raise funds.  The stocks were limited to one per person and could not be re-sold.  The money raised financed the team and improvements to the stadium.  There have been more stock sales under the same rules.  That and the NFL league money-sharing rules allow the Packers to stay in a small town market and remain a successful franchise.  Community-owned teams were banned in the early 1960’s, much to the regret of the rest of fandom.

[ii] For a more detailed account, see Dave Zirin’s:  Bad Sports, How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love.

[iii] Baseball players

[iv] A lockout is management’s version of a strike.  The good thing (if there is anything good about it) is that the employer cannot permanently replace the players.

[v] To keep up on the latest in sports, read Dave Ziren’s column in The Nation, or subscribe to receive regular email updates. Email:

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link:

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 17 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
· 2 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 11 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.