Jon Shepherd: Do minor league players deserve minimum wage salaries?

Professional baseball players are pretty lucky. They have been granted amazing talent from genetics and probability. They have taken that talent and applied considerable amounts of hard work. The recent draft will result in about 750 new professional baseball players. Roughly a third of those new hires will have received a signing bonus greater than $100,000 before taxes. The remaining two thirds have a mean signing bonus of $1,000 before taxes. For their three-month first season, the most they can expect to be paid is $2,550. Players typically spend about 70 hours a week performing baseball activities (e.g., practice, travel, games), so were are talking about an hourly pay of $3.04, which is much less than the scale was 40 years ago ($8.21 in 2014 dollars).

The question that is left with us is whether or not minor league players are an exploited class in the work force? That is the crux of the lawsuit filed by 32 former minor leaguers against pretty much the entirety of Major League Baseball. Major League Baseball (except for the Orioles, who are the only team keeping their own counsel on this matter) has argued that because baseball is a seasonal sport, players are exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. That is correct - no matter how much revenue a business earns, you can put forth the argument that baseball players are no different from carnies on the summer fair circuit.

The success of this defense has promise for both sides of the case. For the owners, there was a case in 1997 where bat boys for the Detroit Tigers contended they were not properly compensated for the amount of hours they had to work for the club. The Tigers won this lawsuit based on the court deciding that the operation of Tiger Stadium is an amusement activity and of seasonal status. For the players, the maintenance staff of the Cincinnati Reds won its FLSA case because the courts decided that due to the Reds employing 120 or more individuals in the offseason that it was indeed a year-round business regardless of revenue. This difference of opinion in the lower courts is a major reason why Major League Baseball is asking to change the court venue from the labor-friendly California system to the more employer-friendly Florida system.

Of course, going to court is the last thing MLB wishes to do as it may set a costly precedent where each club would have to spend about $1 million a year to pay their minor leaguers an amount in line with minimum wage. This may seem rather strange, in that this amount accounts for about 0.5% to 0.1% of any team's revenue, but apparently it is of consequence. MLB is trying to prevent this from going to court on two issues. The first issue they raise is that these players signed contracts where any dispute in pay is to go to arbitration, not the courts. The arbiter in a pay case would be commissioner Bud Selig, which obviously is a conflict of interest as he and the entirety of MLB are named in this case. The second issue they present is that this case should not be a class action case because the players experienced different conditions in different states. If that were granted, it would raise court costs exorbitantly for each player, which would result in dropped cases.

In a far less important court, the court of public opinion, this is an issue I have written about on Camden Depot and on other various public outlets. It has also been the issue that I have received the greatest deal of outrage over my stance that players should receive higher levels of compensation. Apparently, to be able to play baseball is considered by many to be such a cherished thing that they should be thankful to play for a monopoly that earns billions of dollars in revenue each year. I guess for some, that concept should be applied to people who love being a doctor, a marine biologist, a charter fisherman, etc. To do something you love apparently is worth it, as opposed to providing a decent livelihood for your kids and wife.

Professional baseball at any level is simply not an internship kind of situation. Major League Baseball hires players and teaches them how to play or simply employs them so other can learn how to play. Every MLB team benefits from this arrangement. They get a great deal of value out of it. That, legally and ethically, is not an internship. For a pittance of revenue, these individuals could have received a fair shake and a reasonable paycheck. For me, it is hard to see why this is a point of contention outside of the cost conscious billion dollar organization that runs baseball.

My informed opinion is that the case will be heard in California and the players will win if it goes to trial.

Jon Shepherd blogs about the Orioles at Camden Depot. Follow him on Twitter: @CamdenDepot. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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