In the third installment of our series “Politics on the Field” we bring the story of three IWW athletes. This piece of history is written by IWW Neil Parthun, a sports show host, who offers a glimpse into the lives and trajectories of the IWW members who played sports as a career, and ends with his reflections on labor in professional sports.
Far too often, there is very little overlap between sports fans and radical leftists. However, there’s not just tactical movement building and organizing/solidarity opportunities lost through this lack of cultivation. It also means that we can alienate ourselves from our own past because there have been and continue to be athletes who were a part of radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW.)
One of the most famous Wobbly athletes was the Dutch-American Nicolaas Steelink. As a youth, Steelink was an avid soccer (football) player. Even prior to immigrating to the US, he played for his company team. Sport was instrumental in developing the relationships that molded Steelink into a radical political activist. The friends and camaraderie grown through play on the pitch in Los Angeles provided supports to analyze major political issues of the time period like World War I, horrendous labor conditions for most of the nation’s workers and extrajudicial lynchings of people of color.
Steelink joined the IWW and was a regular contributor to the Industrial Worker, the IWW newspaper, under the pseudonym Ennaes Ellae. This work and activism with the Wobblies was also a factor in his facing criminal charges. In 1919, he was among 151 people who were charged with violations of the Criminal Syndicalism Act. The goal of that law was to prevent union organizing drives from being successful in manufacturing plants. Steelink was convicted and sentenced to five years in San Quentin but only served two before being released on parole.
After being released, Steelink continued working in politics and sport. He was frequently involved in struggles for workers’ rights as well as coaching young soccer players. Steelink was an important factor in the creation of the California Soccer League in 1958 and was elected to the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 1971 for his tremendous efforts and impacts on the ‘beautiful game.’
Another famous Wobbly athlete is the mixed martial artist (MMA) Jeff ‘Snowman’ Monson. Prior to his involvement as a pro fighter, Monson earned his Master’s in psychology. He was a mental health professional in crisis evaluation as well as a child/family counselor. When asked about his time in this career, he said, “I greatly enjoyed my time as a mental health professional. I worked with kids, families and the severely mentally ill during a seven year span. I think it is an overlooked need in society in helping those with mental illness.”
During his time in the social service, he noted that “…money allocated to our agencies kept getting cut year after year.” He elaborated “The problem is the financial system – capitalism. It is a viral system where greed and exploitation are seen as positive traits. The first systems to fail are those that do not contribute wealth, i.e. education, health care, social service programs, etc.”
Monson had a steady involvement with his collegiate wrestling teams during his time at University and continued indulging his combat sport interest while working. He attended the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling Championship in 1991 where he performed very well. He was not a prominent name in mixed martial arts and gained the nickname ‘Snowman’ due to his performance. Opponents bestowed the moniker on him because he was white, compact, rolling and getting stronger as the event went. His success there went on to launch him into the world of being a full time pro fighter.
It was, in part, the traveling for the fights that contributed to Monson’s political development. He noted that “traveling to different parts of the world and seeing the destructive forces of capitalistic globalization really got me involved in learning more about anarchism.”
Even though many people see him as a celebrity, he reflected in an interview with MMAFighting.com, “I’m like everybody else. I live in a capitalist system, so that’s what I have to do…I may not like it or agree with it, but that’s our society. I’m trying to change it but I’m not a hypocrite either. I know that I have to earn money and pay bills. I just happen to have a job that I enjoy, and I do feel blessed…At the same time, these people paying me to fight, they’re making a hell of a lot more off the fighters than they’re paying them. They’re doing it to make a profit. In essence, they’re stealing from me. It’s like someone working in a shoe factory making shoes. That person doesn’t get paid what those shoes are worth. They get paid a fraction of it…They’re wage slaves, just like I’m a wage slave.”
Rounding out this look at some IWW athletes is another relatively recent addition to the One Big Union. Colin Jenkins was a powerlifter from 2000 to 2009. During that time, Jenkins had earned three amateur world records and two state records — in New York and Vermont – for bench press through the International Powerlifting Association and the American Powerlifting Association.
Jenkins was also recognized as one of the top 50 powerlifters by Powerlifting USA magazine. He was 26th in 2003, 50th in 2004 and 15th in 2006. 2006 was also the year that marked the beginning of Jenkins’ involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World.
Currently, he is the Social Economics Department chair at the Hampton Institute. His work focuses on Marxist and anarchist analyses of community, government and political economy. His work has been published on Truthout, Common Dreams, Dissident Voice, Black Agenda Report, Popular Resistance and Z Magazine.
Sports and politics frequently intertwine. When radicals talk about the challenges to Jim Crow segregation in America, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color line by starting for the Dodgers in Apr. 1947 is an oft told tale. One of the most well known and widely celebrated war resisters that took a stand against the US draft was also the then-heavyweight boxing champion of the world – Muhammad Ali. As protests continue to highlight the police oppression and violence against communities of color, we’ve also seen these reflected in the sports world. The players of the Miami Heat took a team photo in hoodies and used media to advocate for justice in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Athletes in the NFL and the NBA took to their field/court supporting the protesters by wearing t-shirts and even doing the “Hands up! Don’t shoot” gesture that became a nationally known part of the Ferguson protests. The intersection of sport and politics can even be seen by the solidarity shown by the University of Missouri (Mizzou) football team who pledged not to practice or play games until the #ConcernedStudent1950 hunger striker was eating again. By showing the nexus between these two disparate worlds, it created avenues of opportunity to discuss these political matters with people who might not otherwise be aware. Sport has been a cultural touchstone and reflection of the major social issues of specific eras and it continues to be.
Professional and collegiate sports are also places where we see labor battles being fought. Many of the players are now well paid and have certain benefits because they developed strong union movements to push back against management. Players like Curt Flood lost their careers in challenging unjust policies for future generations of players. In the most recent professional sport collective bargaining agreements, we’ve seen the players get locked out. The major leagues are incredibly profitable but still demanding cuts and concessions from the players because they think that they could get them by weakening the union and its power. This tactic by management can be seen in its analog across the country as many businesses are choosing to lock out employees and demand cutbacks even when the company is generating profits. Meanwhile, college players are in the midst of challenging a long standing legal fiction of amateurism that prevents the athletes on the field from seeing any of the billions that the NCAA, the conferences and the schools generate from their athletic labor. Mixed martial artists are also trying to form a labor union as many fighters see similar criticisms of their promotion companies as Monson mentioned.
The lives of these three examples as well as myriad other intersectionary issues of the past, present and future, show this central claim to be true. While sport can have its corporate excesses and inexcusable behavior go unaccounted for, the athletics on the court, field, pitch and area of play are a testament to the potential and action of human labor. Workers are workers whether they sack quarterbacks or groceries. Sports are political and for far too long we’ve ceded the space to the reactionaries and the far-right. It is to our peril if we write off the robust history of social and political activism in the realm of sport and don’t help to curate a space for its continuation.
Neil Parthun is a sports fan, writer and radio show host. To learn more about the intersections of sports and politics, check out his “Not Another Sports Show”.