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Senate Judiciary Committee Releases Letter Questioning MLB’s Antitrust Exemption

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter Tuesday to the non-profit Advocates for Minor Leaguers requesting additional information about Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

The two-page letter is signed by bipartisan members of the committee, including committee chair Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), and features questions about the exemption’s effect on the pay structure for minor leaguers, MLB’s international amateur system and the league’s reduction in the number of minor league affiliates. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah) signed the letter as well.

“We need to examine how Major League Baseball’s 100-year-old antitrust exemption is affecting the operation of Minor League baseball teams and the ability of Minor League ballplayers to make a decent living,” Durbin, the U.S. Senate Majority Whip, said in a statement, per The Athletic’s Evan Drellich. “This bipartisan request for information will help inform the Committee about the impact of this exemption, especially when it comes to Minor League and international prospects. We need to make sure that all professional ballplayers get to play on a fair and level field.”

“This is about ensuring a level playing field for the Minor Leagues and its players,” Grassley said in a statement, per Dellich. “MLB’s special antitrust exemption shouldn’t be imposing labor or contraction problems for Minor League teams and players. Baseball is America’s pastime, and that means more than just the Major Leagues.”

The league’s antitrust exemption, which was first created by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1922 case Federal Baseball Club v. National League, has been called into question in court on several occasions. However, the letter marks the most substantial step taken by the federal government to question the legality of the exemption.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that was an error and refused to extend the exemption to other professional sports,” Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, said in a statement, per Drellich. “The Court has left it to Congress, however, to fix the mistake. Today, four senior United States senators — including two from each political party — took a significant step toward doing just that.

Major League players would likely be the least affected by the dissolution of the antitrust exemption, because they are represented by a union and labor law supersedes antitrust law. Major league players were also carved out from the antitrust exemption in the 1998 Curt Flood Act, which preserved the exemption for the rest of MLB’s business practices.

However, minor league players do not have a union and are affected by the exemption in a number of ways.

The uniform contract signed by every minor league player states that teams control the rights of players for up to seven years in the minor leagues and seven years in the major leagues. Under the antitrust exemption, if a minor leaguer decides to stop playing the sport before the seven years in the minors or the majors, the team continues to own the rights to the player and he cannot play the sport professionally elsewhere unless he is released from his contract.

As a result of the antitrust exemption, baseball players who sign the uniform player contract cannot seek better pay elsewhere. In 2022, minor leaguers will make an annual salary between $4,800 and $15,400, according to ESPN’s Joon Lee.

“Minor League players are far and away the group most negatively impacted by baseball’s antitrust exemption,” Marino continued. “MLB owners should not have a special license to underpay their workers. We are confident that Congress will recognize as much through this process and, ultimately, repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption as it relates to issues concerning Minor League players.”

Baseball is the only one of the four major sports in America that possesses an antitrust exemption. As a result, figures within the federal government have questioned its legality in recent years. 

Durbin has been among those at the forefront of the charge. In March 2022, he tweeted that “it’s time to reconsider MLB’s special antitrust exemption, which allows them to act as a lawful monopoly.”

Lee, who’s name is also signed on the most recent letter, introduced legislation in April 2021, seeking an end to the exemption. The bill was cosponsored by Republican senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.).

“There’s no reason that Major League Baseball should be treated any differently than any other professional sports leagues in America,” Lee said in April 2021. “No reason why they ought to have preferential treatment relative to the NFL, or the NBA, or any other professional athletic organization.”

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders announced legislation in March of 2022 to remove the entirety of baseball’s antitrust exemption.

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