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Wage Discrimination in Minor League Baseball

By Daniel Oresajo

Baseball was once America's favorite pastime, so many wonder why baseball's popularity has faded. One possible answer is that little has changed since baseball's inception; even the once beloved nostalgia of baseball, still in its "purest form," seems outdated. While many players long for the days of playing for the love of the game, some players, such as minor league baseball (MiLB) players, do not make enough money to sustain playing solely for the love of the game.

Lucas Mann of Slate describes the minor leaguers' plight, writing, "[[m]inor leaguers are] paid just like they were paid half a century ago. They find off-season work to get them from September to March, just like major leaguers did before their salaries exploded." 

"Over the course of a five month season, the average MiLB player earns between $3,000 and $7,500, a salary well below the federal poverty level of $11,490. By comparison, the average fast food worker earns between $15,000 and $18,000 per year, which is two to three times greater than a minor league player's salary." 

As a result of this seemingly unjust scenario, three former MiLB players, Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle, have sued Major League Baseball (MLB), which governs the MiLB, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, the Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, and the San Francisco Giants in a California district court for an alleged violation of antitrust laws, and in particular, wage and overtime laws. Through this action, the plaintiffs mean to "expand the lawsuit into a class action on behalf of thousands of former minor league players." Id.

The plaintiffs argue that the MLB violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state laws guaranteeing citizens minimum wage and overtime pay. According to the United States Department of Labor,"[t]he FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments."  Moreover, "[c]overed nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009," as well as "[o]vertime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek." Id.

Players work between 60 and 70 hours per week, which includes playing six or seven games per week and participating in conditioning. Yet they earn meager wages. In addition, the players' wages do not cover participating in instructional leagues and extended spring training. Thus, "[t]he players believe that they, and other current and former minor leaguers, are owed back wages for uncompensated and under-compensated labor."  At first glance, it is difficult to dispute the plaintiffs' arguments. However, the MLB has a number of defenses at its disposal.

First, the MLB can argue that it possesses an FLSA exemption, which "does not require amusement and entertainment businesses operated on a seasonal basis (seven months or less) to pay its employees minimum wage or overtime pay."  As the span of a MiLB season is five months, which includes spring training (team mandated workouts), the MLB can argue that minor leaguers' status as seasonal employees precludes them from FLSA coverage. However, sports law expert Nathanial Grow states that "the decision will come down to which side of the argument the court favors: that baseball is a year-round business or that it is a seasonal operation that does most of its business during a baseball season." Id.

Second, baseball has historically been allowed an antitrust law exemption, which the MLB will contend might give it legal authorization to continue paying MiLB players such low wages. As distinguished sports attorney Michael McCann writes, "[t]he exemption allows baseball to unilaterally set salaries and working conditions for minor league players. Without this exemption, minor league players could theoretically sue under the Sherman Act, and argue that big league and minor league owners have conspired to unreasonably limit salaries."

A third argument that the MLB may present is that MiLB players cannot form a union. The lack of a union leaves no formal representative body to "advocate for higher player compensation and hold leverage through the power to strike."  Further, unless they have appeared on a MLB team's 40-man roster, MiLB players are also not members of the MLB Players' Association, which is another missing layer of protection.

Additionally, the MLB may argue that MiLB players voluntarily agreed to the terms of their employment by signing their contracts. MiLB players can't argue that they are disadvantaged in negotiations because they have the power to retain agents. In addition to their agents, the MLB Players Association negotiates on behalf of current and prospective MiLB players.

Finally, the "MLB plans to argue that the hours worked and salaries of players are not uniform and therefore should be considered by the court on an individual basis."  However, even if a court disregards this argument, and allows for a class action, "[t]he statute of limitations [for FLSA lawsuits] could limit the ability of minor leaguers who have been retired for several years from joining a class." 

The court has not yet determined whether the class action can go forward. Nevertheless, this case has the potential to significantly impact the MLB's and MiLB's future. If the MiLB players succeed in raising wages, will MLB teams find cheaper alternatives for training their prospects? Increasing MiLB players' salary and benefits could translate into higher ticket prices for fans, which could cause some MiLB teams to file for bankruptcy, taking away the very means by which these players earn a salary (small may it be) in the first place. Put simply, by succeeding, MiLB players could unintentionally end the system they are trying to fix. One thing is clear, America's once favorite pastime may never be the same.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 29, 2014 2:40 PM.

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