Democrats and Republicans agree upon very little these days, but, luckily for Major League Baseball, protecting the national pastime seems to be one area of bi-partisanship. How else to explain a bill sponsored by a Kentucky Republican and Illinois Democrat that is designed to exempt low-income workers from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Apparently, sports and politics make the strangest bedfellows.
In a rare show of Congressional cooperation, Reps. Brett Guthrie and Cheri Bustos have co-authored H.R. 5580, better known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act”. Who could argue with that? As it turns out, just about every professional baseball player who isn’t a member of the MLBPA because what H.R. 5580 hopes to save the American pastime from is having to pay THEM a higher wage.
The impetus for the bill stems from an existing lawsuit that has sought to apply the terms of the FLSA to minor leaguers. Led by former pitcher turned lawyer Garret Broshuis, the litigation has been winding its way through the court system since 2014, picking up dozens of plaintiffs along the way. Recent revisions to the FLSA, which upped the overtime ante for eligible employees, have only added to the potential impact of the pending case. So, instead of rolling the dice on the outcome of a trial, baseball has sought a legislative circumvention, and found a bi-partisan Congress willing to help.
Not surprisingly, news of the “Save America’s Pastime Act” has been met with near universal and justifiable derision from outside the industry. However, Reps. Guthrie and Bustos aren’t the real villains, and the Act itself isn’t the cause of injustice. Rather, what makes the current predicament faced by most minor leaguers so unfair are the antiquated binds of baseball’s labor system.
MLB has argued that its minor leaguers should be exempt from the FLSA because they are essentially apprentices who are learning on the job with the hope of earning a rare, but lucrative opportunity in the future. It’s hard to argue with that description. And yet, it fails because, at the beginning of their careers, when they are most vulnerable, professional baseball players have no say in the terms of their employment. Because of the Rule IV draft and service time confinements dictated by the vestiges of the reserve clause, a player essentially becomes property at the beginning of his career. The idea of players as apprentices sounds quaint, until you acknowledge they aren’t opting for that arrangement, but are being forced to accept it.
The exploitation of minor league players seems to cry out for intervention. However, though well-intentioned, those who argue for higher wages in the minors often overlook the potential consequences. There’s no way to deny that the application of FLSA rules to minor league salaries would significantly alter the current structure of the system. Paying players by the hour would be untenable (the cost of compliance alone could be prohibitive), and even bumping everyone up to the at least $913 per week prescribed by law would take a financial toll. Some will argue that as a nearly $10 billion industry, MLB could easily absorb the cost, but that doesn’t mean it will. So, unless one is prepared to advocate for a much more dramatic change to baseball’s labor rules, a narrow focus on monthly salary not only misses the point, but has the potential to do more harm than good.
Hypothetical Impact of Applying FLSA Rules to Rookie League Labor Cost (Pulaski Yankees)
Note: Salary excludes potential college scholarship funding and $25 per diem on the road.
Source: milb.com, Department of Labor
Take the Yankees, for example. The franchise currently has five rookie ball affiliations. Under the current financial structure, that might make sense, but what if FLSA rules are implemented? If so, labor costs for a single Rookie League team could more than triple (not to mention the ripple effects at higher levels), and, at that point, the Yankees might decide four teams were more than enough. Who knows, maybe the Pulsaki Yankees wouldn’t make the cut? If the Yankees pared down their rookie ball affiliations, not only could a small town in Virginia lose its team (and the seasonal jobs it creates), but those players who weren’t relocated could face a much earlier end to their big league dream. For example, does Icezack Flemming need a roster spot more than he needs a living wage at this point in his career? Although it’s a shame such players often have to pick between the two, it’s better than not having a choice at all.
Good intentions alone do not solve problems, especially when it’s the government extending a helping hand. Minor league players absolutely deserve fairer pay, but any attempt to bring about change must carefully consider the ramifications. That’s why the answer isn’t a court mandated settlement or a legislative exemption. A better way to address the current inequities would be in MLB’s upcoming collective bargaining agreement. Between millionaire players and billionaire owners, there should be a way to collectively provide for fairer compensation in the minor leaguers without jeopardizing the system that has served the game so well. Otherwise, the sport will deserve whatever solution government can inflict upon it.