Is it Time for MLR to Unionize?

By Alistair Kirsch-Poole
May 12, 2023 - 5:30pm

The US Rugby Players Association has launched a fresh campaign calling for recognition as the representative organization for Major League Rugby players. They are calling their campaign Rugby Union Now. While their website is light on actual demands, concerns around access to healthcare, playing conditions, and league communications seem to be running themes.

This campaign has been supported by a steady stream of prominent MLR players on social media. These include Old Glory's Jack Iscaro and Jamason Fa'anana-Schultz.


— Jamason F S 👁‍🗨 (@Jamatime_) May 11, 2023

This isn't the first time the USRPA has made noise around organizing collective representation for MLR players. Originally formed to represent US national team players, the USRPA has been pushing to also represent professional players since MLR's predecessor PRO Rugby started in 2016.

The event that really lit the fire of the current push, though, was Gilly-gate. After Adam Gilchrist's wealth evaporated on the stock market and he became unable to finance the operation of his teams in Austin and LA, players and staff were left in limbo. While the League holds player contracts centrally and paid all players their official wages, players also receive significant compensation in the form of housing and other benefits. The League doesn't seem to have done anything to secure benefits or provide relief to affected players.

In response to the collapse of the Austin and LA teams, the League organized a dispersal draft of players from those teams. While not necessarily a bad idea itself, the way the League actually implemented things was met with significant concern. Reports at the team suggested that the players themselves hadn't been consulted or even informed of the plans until they were already in motion.

One of the players involved, Bryce Campbell, put it this way:

"When the MLR disbanded the LA & Austin franchises, the players were left in the lurch for months. The league fumbled as we weren't allowed to negotiate with other teams, even players whose contracts were up. It forced great players into retirement and caused tremendous amounts of financial and mental stress."

Sports leagues exist in an interesting space in law and economics. In many way, they are inherently monopolistic, a sort of legal cartel. For a long time, sports leagues were able to operate with essentially no restrictions on what they could force players to agree to. There's a long history of leagues abusing their power over players, with basic rights like free agency, minimum wages, and healthcare only secured in the shockingly recent past.

To be fair to MLR, we have yet to see those sorts of abuses from them. While they can be accused of poor communication and insufficient consultation, there isn't anyone accusing them of actual malice. The League can even point to active positive steps they've taken to ensure players are taken care of, like paying players their full wages through the COVID-cancelled 2020 season.

In unofficial conversations, the general attitude I've gotten from the people near the top of the MLR is that this is a problem for later. From their perspective there are far more significant issues for the League to deal with. Player representation is an issue to be solved when the MLR is actually profitable, or at least generating significant revenue.

However, it's hard to see that as anything but short-sighted. MLR will need player representation eventually. That much isn't even a question: every established professional sports league in the US has a players association of some kind.

Legally speaking, the League may even be required to have collective bargaining agreement. While the League has been fairly light-handed in their approach to restrictions on players, they do have restrictions in place like drafts that limit player freedom of movement and salary caps that limit player earning potential. These are not uncommon in other leagues, but those other leagues haven't imposed them unilaterally on their players. They've been the result of negotiations with players and are part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Given that's inevitable, it seems silly that the MLR hasn't already taken steps to implement some kind of representation for players. If they'd done so earlier, they could have avoided the public outcry that's now rising. They could have controlled the manner and terms of representation, but the longer they wait the less control they have.

It's also just the right thing to do. Players are at the core of any sport and it's a little crazy that they haven't been formally included in decision making already. Giving them a say in matters that affect their entire career is just common sense.

It's also not as if the players are making an crazy demands. There is no talk of raising wages, something that could actually threaten the stability of the league. There are just general calls for better communication, safety on the field, and security off the field. All very reasonable concerns that the League is probably dealing with anyway. There is no reason not to include players in those discussions.

The MLR ought to recognize the USRPA as soon as is reasonably possible. They should do so while players are still asking nicely, too. Right now everyone feels like they are on the same side. Everyone wants this project of professional rugby in the North America to succeed, especially building up to an all-important World Cup in 2031.

If the League refuses to engage with players now, its not as if the whole thing will just go away. The problem will only grow the longer the players are left unanswered. How long before we see lawsuits challenging the League for their employment monopoly? How long before we see players go on strike or stage public protests? The League's bank account can't afford this fight, and neither can their public image.

The League has a decent history of doing the right thing. I can only hope they do the right thing here and recognize the USRPA - for the sake of everyone involved.

Note: This article is an editorial drawing from the Rugby Union Now website and my own off-the-record conversations with people in and around the league. I didn't not reach out for comment from anyone involved. If anyone does want to reach out to clarify or add to their side of the story, they are welcome to do so. I can be contacted at