The Major League Baseball Players Association—the union representing all players on the 40-man rosters—announced an extension of executive director Tony Clark through 2022. This means he will lead the union through the next collective bargaining negotiations following the 2021 season.
The primary responsibility of the MLBPA is to advocate on behalf of its members. This includes not only negotiating beneficial terms of employment and compensation during collective bargaining, but also representing players in grievances and preventing MLB from exploiting their rights in any way. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Here are three missed opportunities for the MLBPA to publicly decry MLB’s actions as detrimental to the game and the players:
- MLB donated $5,000 to Cindy Hyde-Smith, an overtly racist U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Tremendous push-back on social media forced MLB to backpedal, but the MLBPA sat on its hands.
- MLB announced an agreement to sell exclusive real-time player data to MGM to facilitate live gambling. We don’t know the exact content of data that MGM purchased, such as whether or not it includes medical information like heart rate monitors, and we don’t even know if the MLBPA is aware of exactly what was sold. One might think they would have some public opinion on their members’ information being sold for a profit, especially considering there is no guarantee that the players will get a piece of that revenue. (The sale of MLBAM certainly didn’t appear to inflate free agent salaries.)
- Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is “seriously considering” trading away Noah Syndergaard, who he represented as a player agent just a few weeks ago. Van Wagenen’s conflicts of interest could have significantly negative consequences for the players.
All of this happened just in the past week! These are just the latest examples of how the MLBPA appears to be absent from major decisions that impact their members, but they aren’t even the most egregious. The last collective bargaining agreement was unequivocally pro-owner, and allows teams to operate under a de facto salary cap without any sort of salary floor. They lay idle while minor leaguers— their future members!— live in poverty. They do practically nothing to combat rampant tanking, while teams small (Rays) and large (Yankees) curtail spending. All of this while MLB rakes in more than $10 billion in annual revenue.
Perhaps it’s not fair to imply that the MLBPA doesn’t do enough to advocate for its members. We don’t know what happens behind closed doors. But that underscores the difference between Tony Clark and several other labor leaders. When the MLBPA should be publicly reprimanding MLB’s unethical actions, they remain silent.
Unions have to do more than just grieve and negotiate. To be truly effective, they have to organize well. As evidenced by MLB’s clumsy attempt to walk back the Hyde-Smith kerfuffle, they respond to public criticism. This is a powerful weapon that the MLBPA should use to secure better working conditions and compensation for minor leaguers, pressure teams to put their enormous revenue to use by signing players, (or even by limiting the costs for fans), and improve their grounds for a better collective bargaining agreement. It’s a weapon Clark consistently refuses to wield.
By many accounts, Tony Clark is a nice man. He’s a veteran of 15 major league seasons who earned respect in every clubhouse. But maybe a nice man isn’t what’s needed for this job (or maybe not even a man at all, but that’s another story). His predecessors were all experienced professional labor leaders who cut their teeth working for unions. The same goes for most of his contemporaries in other sports’ players associations.
They MLBPA members are capable of making decisions for themselves, and of course they are rightly self-governed. They chose Clark to remain as their leader through the next round of bargaining, and did so with more information— and certainly more at stake— than the general public. However, Clark’s lack of qualifications, successes, and profound absence of public action leave quite a bit of room to question this extension. Ultimately, it’s their livelihoods on the line. Let’s hope they made the right decision.