Minor-league baseball players continue to be grossly underpaid, and a legal remedy has not arrived.

By Aaron Leibowitz
September 18, 2015

Minor-league baseball players will remain left to bide their off-seasons scraping together a living. That much is clear after a federal judge dismissed a class action antitrust lawsuit against Major League Baseball on Monday in a San Francisco district court.

But the judge, Haywood S. Gilliam, Jr. didn’t say the suit brought forth by four former minor leaguers—Sergio Miranda, Jeff Dominguez, Jorge Padilla and Cirilo Cruz—had no merit. In fact, he suggested the opposite.

Gilliam’s decision reads:

“In short, Plaintiffs have a persuasive policy argument that the Defendants should not be afforded carte blanche to restrict the pay and mobility of minor league players without answering to the federal antitrust laws that apply to the employment of major league baseball players and, for that matter, all other professional sports leagues. But that policy argument must be made to Congress or the Supreme Court.

In other words, while the judge agreed that MLB may in fact be in violation of antitrust laws, there’s very little a mere district judge can do about it. So until the issue is broached at the federal level, the league’s stranglehold over the game will continue unabated.

The ex-players in the Miranda v. MLB case—and in a separate, ongoing case, Senne et al v. MLB et al—have disputed the merits of several minor league payment practices. First, they claim players are being underpaid on an hourly scale (while the average minor leaguer makes between $11,000 and $15,000 per season, they can make as little as $3,000 to $7,500). Additionally, players are not entitled to overtime, despite routinely logging 50-plus-hour weeks and fulfilling a slew of offseason obligations.

In case you were wondering, the federal poverty line is $11,770.

Whether No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson toils in the minors or becomes a household name, he'll probably be underpaid.

The players in Miranda also argued that their pay was deflated by virtue of what’s known as the “Uniform Player Contract.” From being chosen through the draft and receiving signing bonuses limited by league allotments to being subject to a “reserve clause” that gives signing teams exclusive rights to players for seven years, minor leaguers are beholden to a particularly cynical system. To top it all off, players who don’t make the 40-man roster do not receive union representation.

So how does MLB get away with it? To make a long story short, the league won a court case that has yet to be overturned—in 1922.

In Federal Baseball Club v. National League, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sherman Antitrust Act doesn’t apply to baseball. In particular, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that baseball shouldn’t qualify as interstate commerce.

Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk sums it up thusly:

“[Its] original imposition was based on both a factual and legal fiction of baseball teams being little self-contained storefronts, operating independently from one another in far flung, isolated towns. In reality, it’s a nearly $10 billion business using the federally-regulated airwaves to realize most of their income and using almost exclusively government-funded facilities to generate the rest.”

To put it bluntly, the league’s antitrust exemption is one rooted in myth—just like the NFL’s longtime tax-exempt status, or the NCAA’s Orwellian “student-athlete” doublespeak.

The common thread binding all these myths together is the notion that, because these organizations traffic in sports (activities of “leisure”), the labor provided by their employees is inherently inferior. As such, the thinking goes, if athletes were permitted to operate in a genuinely free market, it would taint or otherwise compromise a certain special something—the love of the game; the honor of competition; the fan experience.

Like MLB, Mark Emmert's NCAA has benefited from some curious legal designations.

The rationalization is a clever one: Who among us wouldn’t, after all, trade our desk job writing hot takes about sports for a chance to play professional baseball? Wouldn’t you be willing to do it for free? Of course you would!

And so would I! But if you wish to be paid what you’re worth, regardless of the job, then it’s in your best interest to want all workers to be paid what they’re worth—free of restrictions and antitrust exemption. If professional sports leagues were forced to follow labor laws, it would only make it easier to argue that all businesses should.

Michele Roberts, who last year was elected the first female Director of the NBA Player Association—and first in any major North American sports league—has called for the deregulation of athlete pay more defiantly than anyone since the days of Curt Flood and Marvin Miller.

In November, Roberts had this to say about the NBA salary cap:

“I don’t know of any space other than the world of sports where there’s this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone’s able to make, just because. It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”

…and this to say about the prospect of a new NBA draft-age requirement:

“It doesn’t make sense to me that you’re suddenly eligible and ready to make money when you’re 20, but not when you’re 19, not when you’re 18 … There is no other profession that says that you’re old enough to die but not old enough to work.”
NBAPA director Michele Roberts (l) has been a vociferous proponent of uncapping athlete pay.

You’ve read the arguments. You’ve seen the historical context. Now comes the modest proposal: a moratorium on any and all suggestions—legal or otherwise—that athletes should make less than what the market says they’re worth.

Should the global economic system collapse and a new society arise in which money isn’t a factor and sports are only played for fun, we might reasonably attempt to keep money out of sports entirely. But if we admit we’re still attempting to fine-tune this whole capitalism thing—and we are, whether we like it or not—then let’s agree to have those same rules govern sports as well.

As for minor leaguers finally getting the chance to earn a living wage, all is not yet lost. Miranda v. MLB could be appealed to an appellate court (although, as Nathaniel Grow at FanGraphs explains, winning that appeal would be a long shot).

There are two other in-limbo cases that broach the issues of player compensation and MLB’s antitrust exemption: San Jose v. MLB and the aforementioned Senne et al v. MLB et al. The former addresses the antitrust matter directly, with San Jose suing MLB in 2013, citing the league’s failure to approve the relocation of the Oakland A’s violated antitrust law. The district court dismissed the suit and the appellate court upheld that decision, but the Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear another appeal.

The latter, meanwhile, addresses the pay scale for minor leaguers without touching the antitrust exemption—which, as often happens with half measures, could spell its doom.

Asked whether minimum wage and overtime provisions should apply to minor leaguers, an MLB spokesman recently told the New Yorker:

“It is both impractical and nonsensical to require baseball players to maintain time sheets, and to submit requests for overtime when they desire to take extra batting practice or their game goes into extra innings.”

For now, this is the law of the land. And until the players themselves—aided by the right mix of labor advocacy groups and free-market evangelists—can spark some kind of critical mass, it may well remain that way for another near-century.

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