Unions and Sport: Australian Professional Players' Associations

By Dabscheck, Braham | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, December 1991 | Go to article overview

Unions and Sport: Australian Professional Players' Associations


Dabscheck, Braham, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


1. Introduction

Since the beginning of the Twentieth Century Australia has traditionally experienced, by international standards, a relatively high level or rate of unionsation. (1) While there is evidence that the level of unionsation has fallen in recent years, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes two data sets which provide contradictory or inconsistent results, it is estimated that between forty and fifty per cent of the Australian workforce is unionised. (2) Unions and unionism is not an issue which is usually associated with professional team sports in Australia. The players of a variety of Australian team sports, however, have either attempted or brought into being player unions, or associations, to pursue their collective rights and interests.

Player associations have been a feature of professional team sports in other countries. Scoville, in reviewing the situation in North America, has observed that 'player associations are almost as old as professional sports'. (3) The earliest known players' association was the National Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, which formed amongst North American baseball players in 1885. The Brotherhood collapsed in 1890 following anunsuccessful attempt by players to form their own league. There have been three other unsuccessful attempts to form player associations in American baseball--the Protective Association (1900-02), the Fraternity (1912-18), and the Baseball Guild (1946). (4) In the 1950s player associations were formed, becoming more active and successful in the 1960s, in the major North American sports of baseball, football, basketball and ice-hockey. (5) The oldest continuous players' association in professional team sports is English socccer' s Professional Footballers' Association which was formed in 1907. (6) In 1967 the players of county cricket in England formed the Cricketers' Association. (7) Player associations have also been formed by soccer players in various European countries and the United States of America, by players of Canadian football, (8) English rugby league, and West Indian cricket

Player associations have sought to pursue the collective interests of players in the context of an unusual or peculiar labour market--a labour market which is unique to the operation of professional team sports. The leagues and clubs of a variety of sports have instituted a series of labour market controls which have 'restrained', or restricted, the economic freedom and income earning potential of players.

Distinctions can be drawn between three broad types of labour market controls. They are the recruitment of players, movement of players between clubs, and the use of wage maxima. In the case of Australian sport the major method traditionally used to recruit players has been a system of zoning. Under zoning clubs are granted an exclusive right to recruit players in a designated geographic area. In the 1980s the Victorian Football league (prior to the 1990 season it changed its name to the Australian Football League) introduced various systems of drafting to recruit players, a procedure which it borrowed from professional sports in North America. Under drafting new players are notionally placed into a common pool, (9) where clubs choose players in order with the club which finished last having first choice, the second last club second choice, and so on with the top club having last choice, with the process being repeated a stipulated number of times. (10) This procedure for drafting new players has been described as the external draft. The New South Wales Rugby League introduced a similar (external) draft in 1990.

Prior to the introduction of the draft, once a player signed with a club he was bound to that club for the rest of his playing life by the transfer, or reserve and transfer system. Even at the expiry of his contract a player could not take up employment with another club without first obtaining the permission of his original or 'owning' club.

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