“It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”
Thus concluded a statement issued by MLBPA chief Tony Clark on Saturday—an answer to yet another proposal from the owners that had been deemed insufficient by the players. After weeks of negotiating on the terms of how to resume play, Clark had offered the rare line that could be described as “pithy.” It resonated.
As frustrations bubbled over on Monday and Tuesday, with commissioner Rob Manfred saying he was "not confident" a 2020 season would happen, players could be seen quoting Clark's statement on social media. Mike Trout. Bryce Harper. Javier Báez. Max Scherzer, Pete Alonso, Gerrit Cole, Iván Nova, Rhys Hoskins, Kevin Pillar, Dustin May, and Gary Sánchez. Soon, new shirts with the phrase were popping up. The seemingly clear request functioned as a rallying cry. And it could be a catalyst for ending the first serious baseball labor strife in the age of social media.
“I haven’t seen anything quite like that before,” says James Dworkin, a Purdue University professor with a focus on sports unions and the author of Owners Versus Players: Baseball and Collective Bargaining. “The players seem to be very, very, very unified.”
There’s been player unity on past labor questions. But there’s never before been an opportunity to display the extent of it so publicly—let alone to mold it into a catchy tagline that fans can buy on a shirt. Historically, sports labor discussions have been shaped more by the league and team owners, who have more resources and established media connections. The players’ opportunities to drive conversation has been more limited. Unsurprisingly, public opinion has not tended to be on their side, typically stuck on the idea that any disagreement comes down to greedy athletes complaining about pay. But social media can shift some of that framework. The players have their own platforms, where they can speak directly to fans, and openly show their solidarity. “Tell us when and where” put that on full display.
It’s hard to judge the effectiveness of any one piece of messaging in a battle like this; the situation can move so fast, propelled by so many different factors, that it’s hard to isolate the weight of any individual element. (And in this case, of course, the battle isn’t over—on Wednesday, the league issued a new proposal that satisfied the players’ central demand, full prorated salary, but the union answered with another proposal of its own, and a deal has still not been made.) If it’s difficult to determine the impact of the messaging, however, it’s impossible to ignore its novelty. In baseball’s first major labor dust-up since the strike in 1994, players have tried to take ownership out of the conversation in a new way.
The groundwork for this type of move has been laid over the last few seasons, as tensions rose over the state of free agency and players started to speak more openly about their frustrations, particularly on social media. In February 2019, SI wrote about how much of that conversation was playing out on Twitter and Instagram, and what it could mean for the next labor showdown.
“It’s a really fundamental change in labor relations in professional sports,” the piece quoted Doug Allen, professor of the practice in labor and employment relations at Penn State, who previously served as assistant executive director of the NFL Players’ Association for 25 years. “(Social media is) just a much more powerful tool for the unions and their members today than it was even six or eight years ago.”
The players association has made full use of that tool. It offered a new method for them to demonstrate solidarity—a consensus displayed not with one group statement or collective action but with individual voices, layered on top of one another, each with its own direct connection to fans. Beyond “tell us when and where,” players have used their platforms to drive other aspects of this conversation, too. An action like, say, Trevor Bauer directly addressing Manfred in a thread explaining his read on the situation would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In 2020, however, it fits. An ugly way to battle? Of course. But these fights have always been played out in the media to some degree. Now, they’re just doing so more directly, with greater transparency.
The players’ voices on social media may not change the actual conversation, but they can, at least, change its public framing. And whatever precedent is set by the discourse here is only the start. It’s just setting the framework for what could be a far bigger showdown next year.
“This is sort of like spring training,” Dworkin says. “Because the collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021—that’s when things are really going to get interesting.”