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Minor league players should be paid a living wage

For decades, the MLBPA and owners have exploited minor league players, creating a system that ensnares them in poverty.

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On Monday, a ninth-circuit panel rejected Miranda v. Selig, a lawsuit brought forth by minor league players challenging MLB’s antitrust exemption. The unanimous panel declared that “in light of Supreme Court precedent, the decisions of our court, and the Curt Flood Act, minor league baseball falls squarely within the nearly century-old business-of-baseball exemption from federal antitrust laws.” The players will probably appeal to the Supreme Court, where they will likely incur another loss, reinforcing the owners’ rights to pay minor league players below the minimum wage. The outcome is unsurprising, as courts have ruled for over a century in favor of MLB’s antitrust exemption, and the rulings match and reinforce a slew of misguided public opinions about the life of a professional baseball player, resulting in the further oppression of these young players at the hands of their billionaire owners.

Since its inception, the MLBPA has continually bartered away minor league rights to strengthen its major league representation. Beginning in the late 1950s, the MLBPA successfully increased player salaries every several years, and with its role in granting players free agency in 1975, it became the strongest players association in the country. But minor leaguers, though subject to all labor agreements made at the major league level, have never been allowed representation at these negotiations. Wary of receiving the title “union” in a time when unions were viewed as evil, the MLBPA initially limited itself to the most easily argued issues covering the smallest number of players, thus automatically eliminating minor league players (those with the least job security) from contention. With no incentive to add minor leaguers to negotiations, the practice of exclusion has stood firm.

Post-1975, MLB salaries have increased roughly 400 percent; MiLB salaries, a mere 75 percent. In 2001, the MLBPA agreed to rigid drug testing throughout the minor league levels in exchange for more lenient major league policies. Minor leaguers are frequently in awkward positions during strike seasons, with the MLBPA declaring them traitors for participating in baseball activities despite their need to earn money. Many fights between the MLBPA and the owners have thus been resolved by limiting minor league players’ rights, targeting those without a voice.

In 1998, the MLB, MLBPA, and Minor League Owners’ Association gathered together to create the Curt Flood Act, which rolled back owner control of players. Again, without representatives at the meetings, minor league players fell outside the purview of the law. Since then, there have been multiple discussions of forming an MiLB union, but no one has come close to actualizing the vision. Minor league players are often afraid to attach their names to these movements because they have little to no job security, and few envision themselves remaining in the minors long enough for them to receive the benefits of unionizing. Further, these players have far less leverage than their major league counterparts because minor league baseball is far less lucrative and receives far less fan attention. The common belief is that winning a lawsuit would enable the MiLB to unionize, but with a Supreme Court and a Congress — members of which introduced the “Save America’s Pastime Act” designed to make permanent MLB’s exemption — too willing to defer to precedent, this path seems increasingly unlikely.

As a result of this failure to unionize, many MiLB players make between $3,000 and $7,000 a year, as they are paid during the season only. MLB recently weighed in on the matter, claiming minor league players are seasonal apprentices, rather than employees, and it is therefore “impractical to treat professional athletes as hourly employees whose pay may be determined by such things as how long their games last, when they choose to arrive at the ballpark, how much they practice or condition to stay in shape, and how many promotional or charitable appearances they make.” This is a view held by many who oppose higher wages for minor leaguers: baseball is not a ‘real’ job, nobody is forcing them to play it, and so if these people want to make more money, they should quit and get an actual job.

The problem with this argument is two-pronged: It gravely misrepresents how much work goes into playing baseball, and it fails to understand how ill-prepared many ballplayers are for the “real world.” Baseball is not, and has not been for decades, a summer-only job. To maintain their position — let alone have hopes of being promoted — players must spend the offseason making improvements, which means long hours in the gym, at the batting cages, and watching film (if it exists). Not only do players not have time to work a second job, the expenses necessary to hold their job as a baseball player vastly outweigh their income, and with few employers willing to hire people for such a limited time as October-February, they have no other options. Players in turn must rack up high credit card debts, prolonging the amount of their lives spent in poverty.

Professional ballplayers are often scouted beginning at the age of 12 or 13. Many of them come from small towns and low-income families, and are told from young ages that baseball will be their way out. In turn, these teenagers dedicate their time to baseball, rather than academics, because somebody connected to professional baseball has told them that is what they should do. If a player gets injured before he is drafted or chooses to not pursue professional baseball, he is left with few other career options. There are limited baseball-related positions for players who did not crack the majors (and even for long-time big-leaguers), and players are often deterred from thinking about their future.

Indeed, poor people in general are left unable to contemplate their future because the paycheck-to-paycheck nature of their lives precludes it; if they do not know what their lives will be like beyond their next paycheck (if they have one), they cannot plan even the next month, let alone the next five or ten years. The MLBPA has only recently begun contemplating creating programs to assist with the post-retirement transition, and such programs would apply solely to major leaguers. Again, minor leaguers are left without the resources they most need.

In the 1975 Flood v. Kuhn case, testimony of player mistreatment recorded by Jim Bouton was admitted as testimony, but Bouton later said that minor leaguers could play into capitalism much like everyone else, opting to play amateur baseball or go to college. But college baseball scholarships are increasingly rare. Per NCAA stipulations, each team can dole out 11.7 scholarships, offering no lower than 25 percent of one to any individual player. Poor families frequently cannot afford to cover the remaining tuition and are often the ones who receive smaller portions of scholarships. Thus, for baseball players as for the rest of America, college is a luxury attainable for primarily white people. As college players are more polished than high school players, they frequently reach the majors leagues faster, contributing to the dearth of black players in Major League Baseball. Race and economics in America go hand-in-hand, and baseball is no exception.

The system doubly preys on Latin kids, taking pride in scouting them at earlier ages, promising them the world, an escape from their lives and an opportunity to help their family and community. Instead, many who do not receive large bonuses are dumped in the minor league system, forced to live in poverty while adapting to a new culture, learning a new language, and being far removed from their support systems. As many players told ESPN, the process is isolating, and simple tasks such as acquiring food become immensely difficult; the exercise of simply living in America as a Latin person is so arduous that it detracts from the time spent playing baseball. Because these players have been trained to do little other than play baseball, and because the money they make here is often more than they made in their home countries, they are hesitant to question the system or discuss its inequalities until they become established players in the major leagues. It is easy to label those who do speak about it as un-American, as selfish players who should be grateful for the handouts they’ve received, further discouraging them from making their voice heard.

As imperialism brought American baseball to Latin countries in the late 1800s, it is again impacting the countries. Many scouting agencies have established baseball camps in the Dominican Republic, promising young players huge contracts in exchange for their enrollment in these camps. Once there, the players are paid far less than their American counterparts and are denied basic benefits such as health insurance and professional training staffs. Teams often target their signings, opening up fraud cases against them for lying about their ages or names. The players are then faced with giving up their dreams of playing in the major leagues or amassing crippling debt via legal fees, frequently choosing the former. The unregulated camps exploit young Dominicans, and far fewer than half ever reach the lowest levels of the minor leagues, while there are others who die due to poor medical care. The camps remain free to operate as such because Americans have either never heard of them or do not care about players in a country that is so far away and therefore inconsequential. These young Dominicans thus become trapped in a system rigged against them.

Systems of exploitation maintain themselves by pitting the exploited against each other, thereby exhausting them in manufactured, misguided feuds that they have neither the time nor energy to dismantle the system itself. It’s present in the American Dream myth — anyone who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps must be lazy, and so people who have received help are unwilling to acknowledge it for fear of being lumped in with this group. It is what labels billionaire owners as hard-workers deserving of their money, while the millionaire players are stealing from the average American (though race also plays a factor here, as white people are likelier to side with white owners than Latin or black players). People recognize the owners as running a business, but insist the players simply play a game. Many (except those who have seen its effects) do not care when taxpayer money goes to fund private stadiums, but decry these human rights issues as being ‘too political’ for an entertainment enterprise.

For a business pulling in over $9 billion in revenue annually, it is unconscionable to refuse to pay a living wage. Doing so would cost each organization less than $3 million per year, and eliminating the stress of poverty (and all the physical and mental illnesses that stem from poverty) would likely increase overall performance in the minors. The current system feeds on the most economically vulnerable, unprotected members of society and routinely denies these players the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness people so vocally endorse as the tenets of American society. For a game that thrives on the personality of its players, particularly in the age of social media, it routinely dehumanizes them, making them less than in the eyes of many fans. If we are to uphold baseball as something dear to America, we must ensure it treats its players, the people with whom we claim an emotional connection, with decency and humanity.

Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.