Last night, Major League Soccer and the Major League Soccer Players Union came to an agreement on principle on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. That means that, as of right now, there won't be a strike by the players, and the twentieth MLS season will begin on Friday as planned. Let's recap what's reportedly in the agreement.
The new CBA will run for the next five seasons, through 2019. There's, at first glance, two huge takeaways. First, the minimum salary goes up by around 64%, from $36,500/year to $60,000/year. That's a huge increase. It was only eight years ago that the league minimum was a ridiculous $12,900.
In less than a decade, it's rightfully increased by 365%. That's still a far, far cry from the league minimums for the other major American leagues, but it's a start, and at $60,000/year, players in marquee markets like Los Angeles, New York City, DC, and Seattle can now play in MLS without needing to line up a second job, or live at home with parents or relatives, or many of the other indignities that so many had to endure so recently. Jon Tannenwald broke down what it means in numbers.
Of the 181 players who made under $60,000 last year, 145 would gain at least $10,000 this year, and 54 would gain at least $20,000.— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) March 5, 2015
But however big the increase in the minimum salary is, it pales next to the other thing: free agency.
No, this isn't unrestricted free agency. That wasn't on the table. If you thought it was, then it is worth recalling that at no time, has free agency been won from owners at the bargaining table; it has always been clawed from their grasping, gannet-like claws through litigation in the courts. Whether it was English players in 1961, American baseball players in 1975, European players with the Bosman ruling in 1995, and so on, the story remains monotonous: free agency was a prize won through the courts.
That changed last night. With this agreement, the league's owners opened the one door they had refused to even contemplate opening.
RSL owner on MLS free agency: it "can't exist where everyone's employed by the same employer." I believe that's the heart of the matter, no?— Andrew Das (@AndrewDasNYT) February 27, 2015
Free agency looks like it'll be available to players who are at least 28 years old, and have been playing in the league for eight years. That's a pretty narrow definition; as it stands, it presumably applies to 84 players in the league, according to this database by Massive Report.
Three New York City players — Jason Hernandez, Mehdi Ballouchy and Ned Grabavoy — are in that group. 20 of the players in the group become eligible after this season; players like Robbie Rogers, Dan Kennedy, and Shea Salinas. It's safe to say that more and more players will become eligible for free agency as the years roll on, but it's a start. If you're making $99,000 at that point in your career, you can expect a raise taking you up to, at most, $123,750; if you're making, say, $150K, then you stand to max out at $180,000; and if you're making 500,000, then you can max out at $575,000.
Near as we can tell, the roster size will remain at 30 players, which is a positive, given that rumors were rampant early on that it would shrink, possibly down to 25 players. And it looks like there will be incremental increases — 7 percent is the number mentioned — to a miniscule salary cap, up to $4.2 million in 2019, the last year of the proposed deal. Last year, it was set at $3.1 million; a 7 percent increase would see it go up to $3.3 million this year.
In effect, the players this time around left money on the table in order to forcefully crow-bar open the door on free agency. Even though the minimum salary doubled, which benefits a significant quantity of MLS players, the fact that the salary cap is barely increasing puts the squeeze on a decent number of veterans. Depending on how the agreement is constructed, it likely also means that those free agents likely won't receive the max raises on their new deals. The players won free agency, but it came at a dear, dear price.
So why so much disappointment on the part of many players and fans, beyond what we'd expect?
Part of it has to do with the feeling that players would never have so much perceived strength and leverage to effect the changes they wanted to see take place in the league. For some, that meant 100%, unrestricted free agency;
Anything except 100 percent free agency in MLS is a victory for owners and, ultimately, a loss for league standards in multiple categories.— Liviu Bird (@liviubird) March 4, 2015
For others, that could mean an overthrow of the current order, leading to...nirvana? I'm not sure. Regardless, last night's agreement led to a lot of angst, on the part of both fans and players.
Welcome to another 5 years of American professional soccer where players are denied their economic rights and fans their dreams.— Zach Slaton (@the_number_game) March 5, 2015
News | From a source in the negotiation room: new MLS CBA deal will "destroy the future of the American player." http://t.co/86hB4OLEWv— Liviu Bird (@liviubird) March 5, 2015
I don't want to begrudge people their feelings, especially right after a contentious process like this one. That said, throughout this long labor battle, I've been looking at this through not one, but two lenses. One, obviously, is my journalistic lens, as a reporter. The other is as an one-time community and political organizer.
One of the best books on organizing you'll ever read is Rules for Radicals, by a guy named Saul Alinsky. Any organizer worth their salt will have a copy, dog-eared and note-marked; if not, they will at least know it thoroughly. One of the big maxims in the book is this:
"We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be."
That matters, because it's only by dealing with the harsh realities of the world that we can, in turn, help shape it into one more to our liking. The simple fact is, going into the CBA vote yesterday, things were never as much in the players' favor as we would've thought. The MLS Players Union, more than most American sports unions, represents an incredibly broad constituency that has multiple, divergent interests, which makes it difficult for them to speak with one voice. It's one thing to stand together in abstract, and to say, We're going to strike if we don't get a deal that's to our liking.
It matters that the players reps voted 18-1 to strike on Tuesday; but as an agreement began to take shape on Wednesday, and that agreement included free agency, the chances that there would be a strike started to diminish.
Striking is, in effect, labor's nuclear weapon. There's a reason why we haven't had a players' strike in 21 years, since baseball players walked in 1994; it lays waste to the landscape. That strike canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years (and only the second time ever). It's arguable that, despite the perceived recovery in popularity of baseball, it still hasn't recovered fully, thanks to the steroids scandal that helped fuel that recovery, so to speak.
If ever a strike was warranted, it was here and now, with intransigent owners like Hansen declaiming free agency wasn't a thing that was even under consideration. But a strike could've easily thrown a spanner into the works. Are you willing to go without a paycheck on principle? How do you pay the rent on principle? How do you feed your kids on principle?
So it's not hard — for me, at least, — to put myself in the shoes of a player rep in that room once the league's reps began to seriously discuss how to make free agency in MLS a reality — however crabbed, however straitened. That's a door that no American league has ever opened willingly during labor negotiations. How hard is it to walk away from that table? How hard is it to walk away from, not just free agency, but pay raises that hundreds of your fellow players?
On top of that, let's not forget that with free agency, the stage is now set to challenge Fraser v Major League Soccer. That means that if the single entity structure of the league — something that was rather tatterdemalion before last night — is ever going to be replaced, the league itself has opened the door to making that happened. That's a nice bit of jiujitsu, no?
That's why I — as a former organizer — have a hard time begrudging the players who voted for this deal.
"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
That was Frederick Douglass' pithy formulation of how he saw the world as it was; it is, still, the world as it is.
If we are going to reshape the world of American professional soccer into something approximating what we would like it to be, then we need to grapple with the reality that it is going to be a long, hard slog. There will never be a point when the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Progress — drop by awful drop, brick by painstaking brick — is ever thus built, and those barriers cannot come down but by the ceaseless work of dozens, then hundreds, working in concert to build that better world.
Was last night a triumph? Certainly not. But it was progress, and it paved the road onward. Look at it from that perspective, and it all takes a a rather different lustre.