In the era of feudalism, the local landowner graciously allowed poor people to live on his land and work it for him. In exchange, the landowner generously provided military protection and law and order, and he allowed each worker to retain a portion of the output. Certainly, a degree of income inequality existed under such a system, but there are natural limits in place when trading goods and services is the primary means of exchanging value. If you own 10 times the number of turnips as your neighbor, you’ll simply become the owner of a lot of moldy turnips in two weeks or so, and 100 horseshoes aren’t useful when you only have one horse!
Times Are Changing
This all changed with the Industrial Revolution, during which three key developments collided to fundamentally change society. These changes are felt to this day:
- Division of labor.
- Technological development.
- The advent of paper money and banking.
This meant that humans could now specialize in a particular task or duty, boosting their productivity. Coupled with new technologies like steam-powered machinery, they were able to produce far more of value than they were ever likely to consume themselves. Industrially minded individuals now had the recipe for the creation of huge wealth, and for the first time it could be stored indefinitely in the form of currency without it going to waste or being lost or stolen.
In short: The Industrial Revolution made it possible, for the first time in human history, for a limited number of individuals to hoard huge sums of wealth. With a booming population and high demand, these individuals took their profits, bought more machines, hired more workers, and doubled down to further consolidate their monopoly on wealth (and the power that follows wealth). In the years 1800 to 1920, wealth inequality increased one-hundredfold in the United States. The political cost of this gap appears to have been the rise of populism and Fascism in the 1930s, and World War II. Interestingly, the highest that wealth inequality has been since then was around the time of the global financial crisis in 2008. Judge for yourself the political ramifications in the 2010s.It would be overly dramatic to suggest that working as a strength coach in professional or collegiate sport is akin to working in a 19th-century textile mill, but the parallels are there. Click To Tweet
What is clear, though, is that while capitalism and the profit motive are the most powerful engines of productivity we have, those on the bottom rungs of the system suffer disproportionately. Industrialists used their financial and political monopolies to drive up the hours worked by their staff to exploitative levels (12 hours per day, six days per week, no vacation or sick pay), giving no heed to working conditions (think one toilet for several hundred people), and swiftly firing and replacing anyone who complained. “Don’t want your job? No problem, we have 10 people who do.”
Hmmm… unregulated, near-exploitative work hours, flat or worsening pay, a hugely oversupplied workforce that is easy to fire and replace, and a huge income disparity between those at the top and the bottom. Coaches, does any of this sound familiar?
It would be overly dramatic to suggest that working as a strength coach in professional or collegiate sport is akin to working in a 19th-century textile mill, but the parallels are there. The 40-hour week is a joke in high-level strength and conditioning. Sixty is closer to the norm, and seven days a week in-season is par for the course, based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues.
Field Saturation and the Pay Gap
As the market has flooded with aspiring strength coaches while jobs have remained relatively fixed, market dynamics have caused wages to plummet. A colleague told me that the same job he did for one organization 20 years ago now pays 50% less (without accounting for inflation), with more rigorous educational and professional requirements. The same job I did in 2010 now pays less in real terms when accounting for inflation. I personally know of multiple coaches with two degrees and six-figure student debt looming over their heads who have worked at the NCAA Division 1 level for less than $15,000 per year.It is common these days for head sport coaches in football and basketball to make in excess of 100x the salary of the lowest-level strength coach working with the team, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Conversely, the compensation at the top of the field continues to rise, widening wealth inequality. Every year, the same article is written about how university presidents, sport coaches, and even head strength coaches are being paid more than ever before. It is common these days for head sport coaches in football and basketball to make in excess of 100x the salary of the lowest-level strength coach working with the team. For context: nasty, cutthroat Wall Street currently sits at 221:1 for its CEO-to-median-worker pay ratio. The trajectory for sports, where we talk endlessly of family and “being in it together,” is not a good one.
In professional sport, but particularly in college sport, the gap between the image the organization projects to its customers (fans and athletes, respectively) and the experience of the staff is comical. I have personally worked elbow to elbow with three colleagues in an “office” that legitimately was a closet in a former life, and I’ve had cockroaches run around my feet where we were expected to use the bathroom and shower. I complained, but nothing happened. I’m sure my experiences were not unique, and you have stories of your own.
The unspoken understanding was that the organization didn’t need to change, because if I didn’t want to be there, they could find someone who did. Ultimately, I didn’t want to be there, and sure enough, they replaced every member of the previous staff in short order, for less money, and with no change to the system that caused everyone to leave in the first place. The reason you don’t hear about it is because careers can be ended with a phone call. If you challenge the status quo, you can be swiftly blackballed and find yourself on the outside looking in. The bosses know it, and their staff knows it, so they keep the code of silence.
To be clear: I’m a grown-up. I chose that job. I could have chosen to be any number of things besides a strength coach. But it doesn’t make it right or necessary. Ultimately, worker exploitation serves neither the organization nor the employer. We see again and again that winning organizations are filled with people who love to work there and whose core members often remain in place for years before success arrives; winning organizations don’t change the seats on the bus every 12-24 months.
So why is it that factory workers don’t work 72 hours a week, 52 weeks a year today? Why aren’t they forced to share one bathroom for an entire shop floor? Why do they get sick pay, health, and retirement benefits? Why is it that an “unskilled” auto worker hired in 2007 or earlier now makes an average of $28-$38 an hour, whereas I, with my two degrees and decade of experience, made the Virginia state minimum of $7.25 and no benefits (in reality less, on account of hours worked) in 2018? The answer is organized labor.
The Labor Movement exists because of the premise that while individual workers are easy to ignore, fire, and replace, they cannot be so easily ignored when they speak and act as a collective. Over the years, labor unions have been responsible for negotiating rising wages, improved working conditions, enhanced benefits, and legal assistance for workers. If you’ve ever benefited from sick pay, taken a weekend off, or utilized employer health insurance, you’ve felt the benefit of the union movement.
From Minimum Wage to Millionaire Coaches
We are overdue for a similar coming together of strength & conditioning professionals. For too long, a strength & conditioning career has been the preserve of only those with pockets deep enough to afford one—first, the burgeoning cost of qualification (another article for another day), and second, the sometimes years of interning and GAships that must be conducted before the terrible wages even begin.
Our field is missing out on the talents of potentially huge numbers of bright, hard-working, but poor coaches who simply can’t afford to enter the workforce. An organized movement of coaches can work with the governing bodies and the institutions to lower the financial barriers of entry. The creation of a parallel career path such as a nationally recognized paid apprenticeship would be one potential option.Our field is missing out on the talents of potentially huge numbers of bright, hard-working, but poor coaches who simply can’t afford to enter the workforce, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
A strength coaches union can also advocate for the raising of minimum wage standards. Why was I paid $7.25 per hour? Because the school knew they could get away with it. The idea that the money just isn’t there falls on deaf ears. Division 1 institutions routinely sit on endowments in the billions of dollars. “But Keir, you can’t tell donors how their money should be spent.”
Well, you can certainly advise them, and in any event, the University of Texas just spent $40 million on a buyout for the head football coach. That works out to $100,000 for every one of the approximately 350 full-time members of staff in the Athletic Department with plenty of change left over. The money is there, it’s just not there for you, and it will remain as such until schools are contractually obligated to pay it.
Let’s respect the time of the coach and establish clear boundaries for hours worked, mandatory days off, actual vacation time, and contact dead periods. It is now illegal in Germany and France to contact workers via email or telephone unless it’s an emergency. These are not tiny economies, and sport is not the only profession that wants to win. If it is good enough for the largest economies in Europe, it’s good enough for college sport.
By acting as an organized group, strength & conditioning professionals can pool legal resources for issues such as termination, accident and injury of athletes, responding to overbearing sport coaches, or even negotiating a share of the vast bonuses afforded to senior coaches and administrators. We can even go a step further to pool educational resources and raise the collective professional standards. Let membership to a union act as a badge of quality that commands a higher price.
Socialized Strength or Capitalized Coaches?
To be clear, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool commie socialist. I am a business owner myself (albeit a small one), and I expect that, as the man at the top, I reap the greatest reward for incurring the greatest risk. The greater your contribution, the more you should benefit. But I also make sure that my employees take a share of the profits, and their wages rise over time as mine do. That I should get richer and happier as they get poorer and more miserable is neither conscionable nor advisable.
Improved worker conditions and wealth creation are not mutually exclusive. We’ve all heard of the amenities provided for Google’s workers, from food, to exercise facilities, to sleep pods. People want to work there and give their all. It certainly would have made me hang around longer as a university strength coach!Improved worker conditions and wealth creation are not mutually exclusive, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Happy workers hang around longer and willingly work harder. For a historical example, do a search for Henry Ford’s $5 revolution for reference. At the time, it represented a near doubling of pay, while reducing hours worked for a great swath of Ford’s workers. The move gets credited as a major driving force behind the creation of the American middle class while further boosting Ford’s domination of American auto manufacturing. These examples were PR coups for both Google and Ford, and both companies still made money hand over fist.
Do not underestimate the lengths to which sports organizations will go to avoid negative press. Simply witness the swiftness with which an employee is scrubbed from their history and website when a DUI or similar indiscretion occurs. A union movement of strength coaches should bear this in mind. If an organization will not respond to the carrot of positive press, there is always the stick of negative press. Draw media attention to those institutions that exploit their workers, create poor conditions, or risk endangering their athletes by hiring unqualified individuals who, often through undue influence from the sport coaches, put athletes in the hospital or worse.
Remember also the nuclear option of organized workers: industrial action. Organizations will act to protect the bottom line even more than their public image. You can imagine the chaos a department walkout on week 1 of the semester or season would cause. Such action, while drastic and to be used as a last resort only, demands attention.
What about the “scabs”—those individuals who would cross the picket line, stay outside of the union, and undercut the competition to secure employment? Isn’t a union doomed to fail as long as such people operate within the field?
Perhaps, but I would highlight the examples of both the Screen Actors Guild and the NFL Players Association. Both unions operate in outrageously competitive fields, and the line outside the door of people willing to work for free is a long one. Nonetheless, both have been able to secure improved wages, conditions, and rights for their workers while driving up the quality of work. Hollywood and the NFL still profit to the tune of billions every year. It can be done.
Making Change Today
What now? We have to recognize and state publicly that change is needed. If the NSCA, CSCCa, or UKSCA are the true coach advocates they claim to be, they need to follow the example of the ASCA and set wage expectations. Create or associate with a workers union and incorporate membership into the accreditation structures. Refuse to affiliate with or advertise jobs for teams or institutions that fall short of the expected standards.If the NSCA, CSCCa, or UKSCA are the true coach advocates they claim to be, they need to follow the example of the ASCA and set wage expectations, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
If you’re a director or administrator, put your money where your mouth is. Until a union is created, build the kind of working conditions for your coaches where, if you suddenly had to work the same job tomorrow, you’d be happy to do so. When a union does exist, hire only union workers. Send a message to your coaches that you are the family you say you are, and crow as loudly in the press about it as you do when a new locker room or stadium is constructed.
Lastly, if you are an in-the-trenches coach, recognize that a small personal financial and professional sacrifice—say, in the form of union dues or not crossing the picket line—pales in comparison to the collective benefit to the profession as a whole, and that such action benefits those at the very bottom, and smooths the path for those who follow in your footsteps.
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