The name Donald Fehr will be familiar to baseball and hockey fans. Fehr spent decades working with the MLB players’ union and left it regarded as the type of labor leader any collective of workers would desire—he got the union members paid, and he kept the greed of the owners somewhat at bay. Fehr later spent about a dozen years with the NHL players’ union, which he left soon after an independent investigation into how the NHLPA handled reports of sexual misconduct by an NHL employee. The investigation found that the union failed to address the reports but that failure was due to “miscommunication and misunderstanding” not “individual or systemic failure.” The report is best summed up as a lot of people, including Fehr, not recalling a lot of phone conversations.
On Wednesday, Fehr testified before the Commission on the State of U.S. Olympics and Paralympics on Capitol Hill. Created after hundreds of former athletes, mostly gymnasts, spoke out and said they were sexually abused by gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, the commission’s mission is pretty big: Give Congress recommendations on how to better the strange and sprawling network of authorities that govern Olympic and Paralympic sports in the United States. The day’s testimony covered a lot of issues, from who investigates sexual abuse to how to change the culture of coaching. But Fehr’s testimony stood out because it was the most radical and also, in some ways, the simplest: What Olympic and Paralympic athletes need is something that would act like union.
“I think it athletes would be well served, and the movement would be well served, by creating an organization of athletes with sufficient funding—which is entirely controlled by the athletes, run by professional staff of their choosing—and solely dedicated to their benefit and welfare,” Fehr said. “If an athlete has an issue, or the parent of one, they need someplace to go where they know that people are on their side and their side only.”
Fehr illustrated his point by referring to testimony earlier in the day from USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland, who said the Olympic movement had made changes to ensure athlete voices were being heard. Fehr had this to say in response: “I started laughing when I heard that. And I don’t mean that in a caustic or demeaning way to the person that said it. But that’s what every management says when it doesn’t want a union or athlete’s voice.”
Testifying at the same time was Ed Williams, former chair of the USOPC athlete advisory council, who read aloud comments that he said he received from an Olympic athlete. They illustrated a similar point: The USOPC doesn’t really answer to anyone but itself.
“The [USOPC] has no meaningful accountability,” Williams said. “Athletes have been left to use the media to bring intermittent attention to problems because there is no other meaningful way for them to make known their position and to have the [USOPC] respond.”
This is not a new idea, and even Fehr conceded that the specifics of the Olympic and Paralympic games would make establishing a true union difficult. Olympic athletes might not be direct employees of a sports federation the way, say, a baseball player has a contract with a team. The lack of competition also is a factor, he said. In a traditional union, part of the power dynamic is the workers’ ability to take their skills elsewhere; that’s limited in professional sports and limited even more so in the Olympics, where there’s only a games every four years. It’s possible, he said, that instead of having one big union-like organization, it would make sense for one to exist individually for each sport.
But none of this should preclude the creation of something that could function like a union, Fehr pointed out, because what matters isn’t having a union in name so much as having a mechanism in place to do what a union does—create collective power its members can use to hold management, in this case the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and various national governing bodies, accountable.
“The notion that somehow they don’t work for the Olympic movement, or the USOPC, or their NGB is just silly,” Fehr said. “You can’t say that with a straight face.”
To the concerns about how young some Olympic athletes are, Fehr said, “There’s a lot of 18-year-old hockey players, too. Union works just fine.” To worries that some sort of union could hurt the commercial enterprise of sports, Fehr recalled his own experience with helping MLB players gain free agency: It made the players and the owners and the leagues all richer by making the athletes into true celebrities.
Fehr threw out other ideas as well for shifting the balance of power more toward Olympic athletes: Acknowledge the USOPC’s board isn’t “normal,” in that it doesn’t answer to a clearly defined set of people, like shareholders, and instead answers to Congress and the public, which, as Fehr put it, “only matters when the scandals have been running around newspapers for two years.” He suggested increasing athlete representation on the USOPC board to 50 percent because otherwise “the athletes can always be outvoted on every issue.” He also suggested allowing athlete representatives not be limited to former athletes, instead letting them be anyone the athletes picked to work on their behalf, thus giving the athletes veto power on key decisions, and the right to “audit any Olympic organization any time they want.”
Fehr closed his opening remarks by noting that the reason the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles had a surplus was because “the athletes didn’t get paid anything” and emphasizing, again, that it is the athletes—who attract viewers and advertisers—who essentially fund Olympic sports in the U.S.
“If tomorrow, we changed every person who has every job in the U.S. Olympic movement and threw them out and got new ones and put on the games, the fans would not notice the difference,” Fehr said. “You change the athletes—don’t have the best in the world—everything changes. And in my view, it’s time we empower the athletes as I said, to take care of themselves.”
There are limitations to a union—anyone who has been in one can easily provide their list of items they are thankful for as well as the list of times they think the union really screwed up. Fehr’s own tenure at the NHLPA and all those forgotten conversations about a report of sexual abuse shows this. But that doesn’t mean unions are evil, either; they are tools, and there’s no denying the fundamental truth of Fehr’s observation: The best thing to do for athletes is give them the tool, the power, they deserve, and then trust them to wield it.
“Many people, my guess is a whole lot of volunteers and staff, are going to respond by saying: These things aren’t necessary. We know what’s best for the athletes. We can take care of them. Everything that should be done has been done. Perhaps,” Fehr said. “But I don’t think history suggests that that’s right.”