In late June 2016, two members of the United States House of Representatives- Cheri Bustos (D- Illinois) and Brett Guthrie (R- Kentucky)- announced they were planning on introducing a bill into Congress. Ordinarily, such a routine announcement would not even register on the radar of much of America, outside of Washington insiders and policy wonks. However, this announcement was no ordinary announcement (and not just because it introduced by a Democrat and a Republican). The House members introduced a bill that even by Washington standards was fairly shocking- an act that would limit the salaries of minor league baseball players. Titled the “Save America’s Pastime Act”, the two sponsors of the “common sense proposal” claimed the act would “close a loophole to ensure the long-term viability of Minor League teams in communities across our nation.”
Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball released a statement shortly after the announcement of the act, pledging its “full support” of the bill (it should also be noted that according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan research group dedicated to tracking the influence of money in politics, Rep. Bustos received a $2,000 campaign donation from MLB’s political action committee, or PAC, in 2016. Rep. Guthrie and other members of Congress also received various amount of campaign donations from the PAC). The joint statement also makes reference to what spurned the creation of the bill, which is a lawsuit in California brought on by former minor league baseball players who are looking to make minor league pay subject to the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938). Before we dig into what the lawsuit claims and discuss whether they have a valid point, let us first briefly direct what the FLSA does.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was one of the many bills passed into law by during the years of the Great Depression under the President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to support those Americans who were working and were trying to make a living wage. After several years of trying to pass similar laws through Congress, the FLSA finally passed in 1938 and established many aspects of working life that today we take for granted: standards involving child labor, the creation of a minimum wage, and standards on who is eligible for overtime pay. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the bill’s enactment brought the wages of roughly 700,000 up at the time of enactment and introduced a workweek which by 1940 was limited to 40 hours, with any hours over that being subjected to overtime pay.
In February 2014, three ex-minor leaguers (Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto, and Oliver Odl) filed a lawsuit against the MLB Commissioner’s Office and all thirty major league teams. The three plaintiffs in the suit (formally called Senne, et al v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, et al) claim that MLB teams violate the standards laid out in the FLSA and that ballplayers should be subjected to overtime and minimum wage laws during the regular season and offseason. It should be noted that in July 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero, concluding that “the individualized issues that will arise in connection with adjudicating these questions [of minor league wages and overtime] will be extensive and will make class-wide treatment of plaintiffs’ claims virtually impossible”, decertified the lawsuit from a class action lawsuit, knocking some 2,000 fellow ex-players from across the country off the suit.
For a visual look at the pay minor league ballplayers receive, consider the above chart. This chart covers the salaries of each and every minor league player not on the 40-man roster (which will be explained later) in all levels of the minor leagues. To compare how those salaries stack up to other occupations in the United States, please see the chart below.
As one can see, wages for minor league baseball players fall well below those jobs that most consider to be worthy of just minimum wage. This does not factor in having to also pay for food, rent, cell phone bills, and many other expenses typical of an American worker. In addition, many minor leaguers must take offseason jobs to help supplement their meager minor league pay. While some might point to the large signing bonuses draft picks in the early rounds of the MLB Draft receive (the average signing bonus of a player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft in 2016 was $2,897,557), players drafted after the tenth round (a team’s signing bonus money pool is set before the draft and each pick has a dollar amount attached to it, per the CBA) of the forty-round draft typically do not receive bonuses over six-figures, or even high five-figures, especially college seniors with no negotiating leverage. Just over 300 players are drafted within the first ten rounds. Roughy 900 are selected in rounds 11-40. Of the 900 in that range that do sign contracts with the team that drafts them, they do so with meager salaries and low signing bonuses to draw on to pay for housing (which teams do help players get). Players also get a small amount of meal money, which often goes towards food that is not the healthiest for a professional athlete.
It is apparent that ballplayers in the minor leagues are getting taken advantage of, much in the way major league players were prior to their gains brought on by unionization and collective bargaining. Their meager pay does not justify the hours of work they put into their craft, both during games and training for them. For many minor leaguers, playing baseball is not an “apprenticeship”, as some have argued. It is a full-time job, and anyone who commits to a full-time job should not be forced to accept pay that falls well below the poverty line or minimum wage standards. A bill like the “Save America’s Pastime Act” does nothing but further harm those who want to play the sport, and harm those who want the participation and popularity of the sport to increase.
As for the fate of the aforementioned act, Representative Bustos pulled her support for the bill just six days after it was formally introduced to the House, saying that “while it’s important to sustain minor league baseball teams that provide economic support to small communities across America, I cannot support legislation that does so at the expense of the players”, further adding that she believes “that Major League Baseball can and should pay young, passionate minor league players a fair wage for the work they do.” The bill has been sitting idle in a subcommittee within the House Committee on Education and the Workforce since September 19. Both representatives won re-election to the House in November.
After the decertification of the lawsuit as a class action suit, the plaintiffs in Senne v. the Officer of the Commissioner of Baseball filed a motion on September 7 for an appeal on the restoration of the classification. While Judge Spero reconsiders the classification, the trial for the lawsuit, which had been scheduled to begin next month, has been indefinitely postponed.