Should U.S. Olympic athletes unionize?
The shadows of a performer high up in the air inside the Olympic rings is projected on the Obelisk during the Opening Ceremony of The Youth Olympic Games, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oct. 6, 2018. | Gustavo Garello / AP

As the fallout from the Nassar sexual abuse scandal continues to haunt the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), victims and athletes are left powerless and voiceless within the USOC’s corporate structure.

In a meeting of the Athletes Advisory Council (AAC) last week, newly minted USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland sat opposite former MLB Players Association (MLBPA) union chief Donald Fehr.

Fehr is best remembered for leading the MLBPA during the vicious fights against the league in the 1990s.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the AAC invited Fehr to the meeting to answer questions and advise on next steps that would allow more transparency and athlete control in a decision-making system some athletes say they’ve been largely shut out of.

“Just having him here, it lends a different level of credibility,” said Han Xiao, a former table tennis athlete and chairman of the AAC, to the Journal. “It recognizes that [athlete] leadership is serious.”

As the push for unionization grows in the “amateur” athletic world, including college level sports, the coming months will see several group studies by the AAC focused on finding the best option for “amplifying athlete voices,” including a union organizing drive.

In 2017, German athletes took similar action by forming their own independent athlete organizations to support and strengthen athletes’ rights.

Despite challenges—one being the independent contractor label, rather than being considered direct employees—Olympic athletes believe organizing is the only way to gain power and a seat at the bargaining table.

“There are athletes in some of the sports that have organized and have a sort of collective bargaining, so it’s something to definitely continue working on,” Xiao said.

When asked to comment on the possible union drive, Hirshland stressed the “importance of meaningful athlete participation and contribution” and the continuing need to “modernize our [USOC] governance.” Fehr declined to comment on his private discussions with the council.

What do you think about Olympic athletes forming a union? In this sportswriter’s opinion, it might be the only option they have left.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.