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Unfree labour and the sports-industrial complex.

FOR THE LIKES of Milton Friedman, capitalism is a system of free markets and voluntary exchange: the unfree labourer exists only where the liberal democratic institutions foundational to a "market society" do not.

Marx, on the other hand, argued that the "free" labourer is "free in the double sense, that as a free man [sic] he can dispose of his labour power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale"--thus obliging the labourer to sell his labour power to a capitalist or be "free" to starve. Yet unfree labour was as a ghost of capital's past, peculiar to the birth pangs of the capitalist mode of production, what Marx called--adapting from earlier classical political economists--"primitive accumulation."

As David Graeber contends in Debt: The First5000 Years, contra Marx and Friedman, "the secret scandal of capitalism is that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labour." According to the International Labour Organization, approximately 21 million people in the world are victims of unfree or "forced" labour. Unfree labour was and remains central to global capital accumulation.

But this is a sports column, so to the world of sport. Two recent news stories, in very different ways, illustrate the role of unfree labour in the sports-industrial complex, the collusion of state and capital in the manufacture of billion-dollar sporting spectacles.

A damning report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) says 1,200 migrant construction workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup of Soccer; investigators estimate that 4,000 will perish by the time the first game is played.

Under Qatar's kafala system, a form of sponsorship that binds a foreign migrant worker to his or her host employer, impoverished workers are living in wretched conditions while beholden to employers who control their identification cards and exit visas. Working in "unbelievable heat" six days a week, migrants are dying in "unprecedented numbers." According to ITUC investigators, "Grown men said they were treated like animals, living like horses in a stable." "Tragically," the ITUC says, "a small number of Qatari power brokers have chosen to build the trappings of a modern economy off the backs of exploited and enslaved workers."

Along with Amnesty International, the ITUC has demanded that FIFA, soccer's international governing body, address the labour rights abuses surrounding the construction of World Cup facilities. The event stands to generate billions of dollars in revenue; a small fraction of which will go to workers, and at great human cost.

While "college athletes are not slaves," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Taylor Branch, "to survey the scene--corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as 'student-athletes' deprives them of the right to due process--is to catch the unmistakable whiff of the plantation." As Dave Zirin has put it, college sport in the US is "capitalism for some and indentured servitude for the masses of athletes." NCAA athletes are essentially campus workers who don't get paid and it is no coincidence that "the two revenue-producing sports, football and basketball, tend to be populated by impoverished people of colour."

Northwestern University's football players recently struck a blow against "indenture" in college sport, winning the right to form a union. Between 2003 and 2012, the Northwestern University football program generated $235 million in revenues. While the coach makes $3 million a year, his players earn an annual scholarship worth $60,000. By law, they cannot receive pay or benefits such as health insurance. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that players are given value for their time playing football, i.e. their scholarship, so under the law they are workers, not student-athletes, and can organize themselves into a union.

Two continents, two sports associations, and two workforces engaged in different stages of a labour process to produce sports spectacles. But in both scenarios we see that sports spectacles have emerged as key sites of capital accumulation in which the hyperexploitation of racialized unfree labour, a condition maintained by the state through law, generates massive profits for the few and little reward for the many.

SIMON BLACK is writer, activist and academic living in Toronto. He is also a former NCAA athlete, playing soccer for the University at Buffalo Bulls after a professional trial with Watford FC of the English first division. He has played competitive cricket, rugby and American football. Black has been CD's sports columnist since 2006.
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Title Annotation:All That's Left: SPORTS
Author:Black, Simon
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2014
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