The Canadian Track and Field League (CTFL) entered the Canadian track and field scene on January 1, 2022 and has been embraced by many athletes across the country, staging its first competitive season last summer. Its mission, as stated on its website, is twofold: “bring more content to fans and help build the sport of track and field in Canada,” and “help athletes financially by providing them with a platform for them to use and build their own brand.” These are altruistic goals, but is the league management genuinely interested in fulfilling them? Or are they only interested as long as they stand to gain financially? It’s an important question to answer. After speaking to founder, Quinn Lyness, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the league. It has the potential to make a lasting positive impact on the Canadian track and field community, especially for younger athletes. This will not happen automatically though! A truly successful project will require continuous effort from both the managers of the league and, more critically, the athletes, to create something that works for everyone. How might they go about doing that? Hopefully the next few paragraphs are thought provoking.
First, let’s take a look at the organizational structure of traditional North American sports. In the four major professional team sports leagues (NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB), athletes are employed by team owners who want to make a profit from the work the athletes do. The players in each of these leagues have formed a union and so they work under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is a contract both the players and the team owners agree to that stipulates the terms of employment. It defines things like salary minimums, benefits that players are entitled to, and revenue sharing. Because owners are constantly looking to maximize the profits they get from the work of athletes, labour disputes can occur when a new contract comes up for negotiation. Since the start of the 2010’s, there have been lockouts in all four major North American professional team sports leagues. A lockout is when the management of a company (in this case the team owners) locks workers out of facilities to initiate a work stoppage. Preventing workers from working and collecting salaries puts them under economic pressure, which can allow management to get themselves a more favourable labour agreement. This is in contrast to a strike, which is when the workers of a company (in this case the players) initiate a work stoppage by refusing to work. A strike can help workers win a more favourable labour agreement because work stoppages make a big dent in the profits of a company, which puts economic pressure on the owners. The working class struggle with business owners for workplace democracy is one with a long history, and professional team sports in North America are a great case study for it.
In the Canadian consciousness, workplace democracy usually takes a back-seat to the representative democracies we determine through governmental elections. In reality, democracy starts at work. How democratic is a society in which to survive, working people must sell their labour to business owners? As a result of this structure, the wealthiest 1% of families in Canada own 25% of the stuff, while the poorest 40% own just 1-2%1. Compounding the problem is that it’s much easier for people with more money to win elections, so we end up with policies that increase the wealth of the rich, rather than lift up those who are struggling. A true democracy requires economic democracy too, and unions have been key leaders in this fight. Utilizing the power of collectively withheld labour has significantly improved the share of wealth passed down to working families in Canada. It has also improved other workplace conditions such as hours of work and health and safety measures. However, the worker/owner relationship is antagonistic, and often hostile. Unionized workers have to continuously risk losing their salaries if they want to access bargaining discussions and democracy at work. Instead of one group trying to make money off the other, a more productive and democratic alternative is to get rid of the worker/owner relationship so that all of the workers at a business become part owners who make decisions collectively, otherwise known as a worker cooperative.
Can the CTFL succeed as a cooperative? Luckily, Quinn is sympathetic to these kinds of ideas. He has already been reaching out to athletes and the public for feedback on the league to help guide his decisions. It takes a lot of work to organize the league, and another article is needed to really break down how the league functions, but we cannot discount the work that is done by the 58 athletes on each of the league’s four teams. The athletes are expected to compete in at least two competitions prior to the CTFL final, one of which must be an official CTFL event. Even if we only include a conservative estimate of the hours spent competing in these two meets (~one hour per athlete per meet), that’s still ~464 hours (~58 eight-hour work days) that the athletes have contributed, and it’s definitely far more when you consider the hours spent training, travelling, and helping with social media promotion. The coordinating work done by the CTFL builds on that existing labour, which is why everyone involved should participate in the decision-making. How many athletes are willing to put in the time to deliberate financial and logistical decisions though?
I’m the type of person who prefers consensus decision-making, or at least as close to consensus as possible. With modern technology it’s easy to conduct one or two town halls in the off-season where along with Quinn, any CTFL athlete can attend and voice how they think the league should operate. Decisions are made with the consent of everyone in attendance, and those who cannot attend should be able to find a friend in the league who can. At these town halls, athletes can select representatives to streamline any decisions that have to be made during the season. Consensus decision-making takes some getting used to though. I would be happy to volunteer and help moderate this town hall format should it happen.
Quinn has invested a lot of time and money to get the league going ($10,000 thus far plus numerous hours of work), and he deserves to make his investment back and be compensated for the work he does if the league continues. At the same time, the athletes do a huge chunk of the work that makes the CTFL possible and so they deserve to help determine how the league operates and how the finances are distributed to make sure everyone is compensated fairly. The most well-meaning individual recognizes that it’s impossible to make decisions that help everyone involved if only one person has the final say. For the CTFL to fulfill its goals around bringing track and field content to fans and helping athletes financially, the athletes in the league must have control of how this will happen rather than trust the owner to do it for them. The athletes have to meaningfully engage in decisions to provide diverse input and help the league grow. Is Quinn willing to democratize control of the league? A CTFL for the athletes BY the athletes is what I would like to see, but the athletes have to push to make it happen.
1 Estimating the top tail of the family wealth distribution in Canada: updates and trends, Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 2021, https://www.pbo-dpb.ca/en/publications/RP-2122-023-M–estimating-top-tail-family-wealth-distribution-in-canada-updates-trends–estimation-extremite-superieure-distribution-patrimoine-familial-canada-mises-jour-tendances