With average salaries of $4.4 million per player on major league teams and a league value of nearly $10 billion, professional baseball and the poverty line seem incongruously related. Yet, for approximately 6,000 players on any of the 250 minor league rosters, meagre salaries are as much a part of the game as hitting and pitching. Through Supreme Court precedent and passage of the Curt Flood Act, Major League Baseball (MLB) established itself, and has maintained status, as the only American professional sports organization exempt from antitrust laws. This has allowed the league to keep wages artificially low, as there is nowhere else for players to take their expertise.

In 1956, professional baseball players seemed to gain traction with the successful founding of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the union that led to free agency and the major force behind the 400% increase in MLB player salaries in the last forty years. However, the MLBPA has been criticized for widening the gap between MLB and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players. By excluding MiLB players from the association and bartering away their rights in exchange for leniency at the major league level, the MLBPA fails to protect minor league players from baseball’s monopoly.

In the most recent challenge to the MLB’s power, [mostly former] minor league players have taken matters into their own hands, bringing a collective suit for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Players chasing Big League dreams are relegated to average salaries of $3,000 to $7,000 a year (paid directly by the MLB, not MiLB), twenty-five dollars per diem each day on the road, and a lifestyle where “air mattresses are ubiquitous.” With most players making about four dollars an hour, minimum wage laws would clearly be violated if not for MLB’s two major claims for FLSA exemption. The first is that MiLB players are “seasonal apprentices,” an argument that courts have not yet agreed on. Though, it does seem illogical to rule that players who are striving to compete at the top level of professional baseball—an obligation that entails nearly 150 games per season, spring training, film review, and year round efforts to stay in top shape—could be anything but a full time employee. Regardless of their classification, players are barred from any traditional careers, as they would only be able to work from October to February. Even in jurisdictions where the seasonal classification has been struck down, the MLB’s argument that baseball players are creative professionals withstands. However, the MLB’s antitrust exception separates baseball players from other creative professionals, as they are prevented from going where their talents could be best compensated. Referring to professional baseball players as creative professionals pays homage to the revered place baseball holds in America’s heart and cuts to the likely root of the problem. Antitrust exceptions for professional baseball arose from the mentality that baseball is “just a game,” yet every action by the MLB denotes its true status as a profitable business.

The issue largely comes down to the impact paying MiLB players a livable wage would have. A sinister slippery slope argument has attached itself to the mention of a change in the MLB business model. The popular assertion—that better compensation for minor league players would cause smaller teams to fold and local economies to suffer—withstands despite some individual MLB players making upwards of $30 million in a season. Yet, perhaps the biggest inconsistency amidst all of this is that minor league player development is one of the most unique parts of professional baseball in the United States. With rare exception, every player starts in the minor leagues, since MiLB teams are truly for developmental purposes rather than a purgatory for subpar athletes. So, if the future talent of baseball lies in the minor leagues, why is the MLB so opposed to investing more capital in MiLB players? If baseball is truly “just a game,” maybe the MLB should make sure its players’ basic needs are met first.

Sara Anderson

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