As part of a fledgling league without a collective bargaining agreement and at the mercy of short-term, team-friendly contracts, NWHL players have few choices as to how to react to the pay cuts the league has handed down.
NWHL Players Have Few Options in Response to Pay Cuts
On Thursday, Nov. 17, the National Women’s Hockey League informed the players’ association representatives from all four of its member franchises that their contracted pay would be at least cut in half for the remainder of the season. As far as the rationale behind the cuts goes, league commissioner Dani Rylan stated that the cuts were necessary in order to keep the league viable and save the season.
In order to keep the league in the clear from a legal perspective, the league has asked players to sign an addendum to their contracts that will allow for the pay cuts. While the league has no power to force the players to sign the addendum, the potential consequences may make signing the addendum more attractive than not signing it. Additionally, the other options for the players aren’t that attractive.
The Lack of a CBA Leaves the NWHLPA’s Power Diminished
Although the NWHLPA seems to be have strong player engagement, there is no collective bargaining agreement between it and the league. Without that legal structure, the league has the upper hand of dealing with each individual player as a lone contractor.
Without access to the exact language of the contracts these individual players have in place with the NWHL, the only information that is reliable to ascertain their options is the information that they have provided the press. All of that information points to a similar result: a choice not to sign the addendum is a choice not to continue playing for the NWHL.
The New York Riveters‘ Madison Packer explained her position in an interview with Excelle Sports, stating that the situation is a “lose-lose. If you stay, you get very little of what you were getting before, which was already pretty low. Or you leave and you get nothing.” That little is hardly enough to allow the players to survive, as laid out by the Riveters’ Tatiana Rafter.
In theory, players could refuse to sign the addendum and file an antitrust suit against the NWHL, citing that the league was illegally using monopoly power as the only women’s professional hockey league in the United States of America to bar the women from playing unless they did so on their terms.
That bit of leverage gets lost when you consider the potential grim financial status of the league, however. Simply put, there could be no league to sue.
Considering the Bigger Picture
Refusing to sign the addendum and holding out could not only end individual careers, but seriously damage the league as well, even potentially leading to its total collapse according to Packer.
The players are aware that the league’s folding benefits no one involved, so at this point, all they have done is make four demands of the league.
— Hilary Knight (@Hilary_Knight) November 19, 2016
While these demands are certainly reasonable – it’s crucial for the players to have an accurate understanding of the league’s financial situation in order to make an informed decision on how to proceed – the players, either as individuals or as a group, have very little power to force the league to meet these demands. Still, their only leverage is to hold out until the league acquiesces, which again, could lead to the league folding completely.
The relationship between the NWHL and its players can be perceived as being on thin ice before the players made these demands. According to Packer, the league didn’t consult the players before they arrived at the decision to cut salaries and has been less than forthcoming about its financial situation.
We’ve already seen what the players’ lack of leverage has wrought in Rylan’s response to the players’ demands; a measured, gracious statement that commits to nothing but conversation.
— Jen Neale (@MsJenNeale_PD) November 19, 2016
While the league and the players need each other if the NWHL is to survive, the relationship between the two parties is a clear case of the league calling the shots and the players left with few options. Staying for the players means putting themselves in debt and, perhaps under protest, but nonetheless consenting to the league’s decisions. Going means exercising their small piece of agency they have as individual players, but potentially destroying the league in their wake.