Players’ Associations Warn Sports Illustrated on Union Busting

As the future of Sports Illustrated remains uncertain, the players’ associations of seven pro leagues—the NFL, MLB, WNBA, NHLPA, MLS, NWSL and USL—are stepping up for SI’s writers.

The players’ associations warn in a recent statement that if SI’s management replaces full-time unionized workers with less protected workers, “Sports Illustrated will no longer be Sports Illustrated.”

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The AFL-CIO Sports Council, which launched in 2022 to assist athletes in unionizing, released the statement Monday.

The warning doesn’t mention any specific consequence that could arise. However, players in those leagues could refuse to conduct interviews with SI writers and podcasters, decline to attend SI parties and otherwise boycott creation of SI content. For the storied publication, which for decades influenced the sports industry like no other, a loss of access to players and their unions would make reporting more difficult, and it would both diminish and delegitimize the SI brand.

The players’ associations add they will “always call out any attempt by management to treat their workers unfairly” and “demand that these union-busting tactics at one of America’s most important journalistic institutions stop now.”

The NBPA is the lone major U.S. league union not included in the statement. An NBPA representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The statement comes five weeks after the union representing SI staff filed an unfair labor practice charge against SI’s publisher, Arena Group, with the National Labor Relations Board. The NewsGuild of New York, Local 31003 of the Communications Workers of America, accuses Arena of violating the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by allegedly terminating SI employees on account of their union activities.

In January, SI’s owner, Authentic Brands Group revoked Arena’s license to operate and publish SI after Arena missed a $3.75 million quarterly payment. Arena responded by reducing its workforce; some writers were let go immediately while others were told they would be let go in a period of weeks or months. Last month Arena stated in a regulatory filing that it anticipated reaching a new agreement with Authentic for at least the near term.

The NLRA prohibits employers from interfering with workers’ right to unionize or retaliating against them because they unionized. If Arena (or a successor picked by Authentic) fires all the unionized writers and replaces them with part-time or independent contractors, Arena will likely face unfair labor practice charges and potential lawsuits. It could be on the hook to make back payments and reinstate discharged workers.

Even if Authentic shuts down SI and terminates the unionized employees, it could face potential legal problems if it relaunches SI with a non-unionized staff overseen by a new publisher. The move could be viewed as an attempt to circumvent labor protections for unions.

Authentic would have more protection if it shut down SI and launched a new publication, but then it would lose the business value of SI’s well-established brand—not to mention the cooperation of athletes and perhaps other entertainers.

It’s unclear how much business these unions do with other parts of Authentic’s SI portfolio. For example, unions often have licensing deals with gaming operators, and Authentic has licensed SI’s name to 888 for the SI Sportsbook.

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