[I originally wrote this column on SportsFilter in June of 2009, when Donald Fehr retired from the MLBPA. With the passing of Marvin Miller, it seems like an apropos topic, so I have copied it here.]
Baseball has been a part of the fabric of American culture for as long as it has been around. Some of the observations are obvious: Babe Ruth was a larger-than-life figure when he played, and during the years of WWII and the Korean War, our baseball heroes were also our war heroes, as men like Ted Williams left baseball to serve their country overseas. However, even the background of baseball has its parallels in culture. With the impending retirement of Donald Fehr, this seemed like a good time to put forth a comparison between two completely different organizations who have had surprisingly similar paths in their lifetimes, despite having nothing to do with each other on the surface: The MLB Players’ Association (MLBPA) and the National Organization for Women (NOW). The parallels are actually quite striking.
To start with, both rose to prominence at around the same time. Both movements had always had stirrings in the culture prior to the 1960s, but it wasn’t until then that either of these organzations came to prominence. NOW was founded in 1966. The MLBPA, while founded in 1953, didn’t become a major force until Marvin Miller was hired in 1966.
In both cases, the initial goals of both organizations were completely laudable and justifiable. The primary goals of NOW when they were founded were concepts such as equal pay for equal work and fighting discrimination against women. The MLBPA fought for players who had been paid relatively small amounts of money despite reaping large profits for team owners. In each case, the public tended to be on their sides.
As the years have passed, however, both groups have evolved into something completely different than what they once were, and now only represent a small portion of the group that they claim to represent. In the case of the MLBPA, their stances seem to only represent the superstars as opposed to the rank-and-file. The MLBPA has bitterly fought against a salary cap, even with proposals accompanied by a salary floor, which would benefit the rank-and-file tremendously, because they seem to care more about players like Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez making $20 million per year than the league-minimum veterans. NOW, meanwhile, has become little more than a political fringe group dedicated to advocating abortion rights and lesbian rights, and has little to do with the average woman anymore. For an example of where NOW currently sits, look at any congressional or gubernatorial race in the last 25 years where a male Democrat ran against a female Republican, and see which candidate NOW endorsed. (Hint: It wasn’t the woman.) Most women reject the label “feminist” now.
Interestingly, though, both groups still claim to represent the entirety of their demographic, and still claim to be fighting for the same things. In the case of the MLBPA, they still claim they are fighting for fairness in profit distributions for all players, while NOW claims to still be about “equal pay for equal work” and other such slogans. But no one really believes either of them when they say it anymore. The MLBPA has sunk to being on equal ground with the owners as far as public popularity, and NOW is thought of as a fringe group.
Finally, both have suffered their share of political embarrassments which have led to their declines. In the 1990s, NOW was a primary advocate of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, but was made to look bad when Hill couldn’t keep her story consistent. (Her initial timeline had the harassment incidents taking place three months before she had even been introduced to him.) A few years later, when the Paula Jones harassment suit against then-President Clinton was in the news, NOW wanted nothing to do with Jones, instead deriding her as trailer trash despite having a story with far fewer holes than Hill’s. (This is not intended as a judgment of either case’s accuracy, though I expect the reader will judge that for themselves.) NOW has been largely out of the political limelight since these events.
The MLBPA, meanwhile, took a little longer to run into its political fiasco, but it’s embarrassment was much more direct and public: the steroid trials. The MLBPA had fought against steroid testing, despite public opinion being largely against them, and it turned out they had something to hide. Given the forum, it is probably not necessary to dive into further details about this, but needless to say, the MLBPA saw its power significantly weakened when Congress started looming over them.
It just goes to show that sports and life intertwine in the strangest ways.