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Save America’s Pastime–From the Minimum Wage and Overtime Pay?

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Did you know baseball evidently needs saving? From what, you might ask? Is it from sluggers using specific drugs that challenge the records of the heroes current sportswriters had when they were kids? Is it from Clayton Kershaw going on the DL? Is it from the horrors of the Yankees winning the World Series? No. Evidently baseball needs saving from the oppressive measures of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But what, you say? Major league players are millionaires! Indeed. This is about making sure that minor league players don’t receive proper compensation.

Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Brett Guthrie of Kentucky introduced the “Save America’s Pastime Act” late last week. The bipartisan legislation—Bustos is a Democrat, Guthrie a Republican—proposes to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and create a specific exemption for minor league baseball players (who are not unionized) so that they are explicitly not guaranteed the minimum wage, and thus not allowed overtime pay.

Minor leaguers are professional athletes, so they’re never going to get widespread sympathy from the public, but MiLB’s wage structure is set up such that that they can barely earn a living while playing baseball. At best, they can break even. It’s tricky to conceive of sports jobs on hourly terms, since the responsibilities of a professional athlete extend so far beyond simply clocking in and out on game days, but minor league baseball players live all of the round-the-clock lifestyle of MLB players, just without getting the pay to justify it.

The bill alleges that MiLB players need their wages locked in at poverty level and that if players start getting paid at least as much as fast food workers, grassroots minor league baseball is at risk:

If the law is not clarified, the costs to support local teams would likely increase dramatically and usher in significant cuts across the league, threatening the primary pathway to the Majors and putting teams at risk.

This is bullshit. Major league owners pay the salaries of their farm teams. MiLB teams don’t need attendance revenue to pay their players, the money comes from the top. As ESPN noted, bumping every minor leaguer’s pay by $5,000 would shake out to 5 percent of Justin Verlander’s salary. MLB made $8 billion in revenue in 2013 (the number is certainly higher now). But the “Save America’s Pastime Act” isn’t about saving money, and it certainly isn’t about saving America’s pastime.

If you are asking why a Democrat like Bustos would be involved in such a horrible piece of anti-worker legislation, the answer is pretty simple. Her father in Major League Baseball’s chief lobbyist. The entire justification is completely ridiculous. Major League Baseball is going to support a minor league system because they require a minor league system to prepare players for the major leagues. The idea that teams in Missoula and Batavia are going to fold because the Yankees and Dodgers have to pay the minimum wage to the players does not hold up to even the first bit of scrutiny.

Outside of the grotesque nature of the arguments for this rather Orwellian named bill, Grant Bisbee explores just how despicable it is by thinking of the minor leaguers themselves. Basically, minor leaguers develop no job skills for the future. If they sign out of high school, they spend their traditional college-aged years learning nothing but to hit and field and pitch. If they do go to college, they probably leave after 3 years without a degree and spend their post-college years, when their friends are starting to find stable jobs and figure our careers, learning nothing but to hit and field and pitch. Most of them will never see a 40-man roster, not to mention actually playing in the major leagues. Far less will become wealthy. For most, this is a career dead-end. This bill is about making sure a 26 year old outfielder with a .700 OPS in Chattanooga doesn’t get paid if he goes to visit a nursing home in a team event, not about protecting players, the minor leagues, or baseball itself.

…Bustos has since withdrawn her support of her own bill in what Bill Shaikin calls “a flip flop monumental even by Washington standards.” Honestly, this is enough that her constituents should seek to primary her out of a job in 2018. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is doubling down and saying that minor league players aren’t really employees–they are creative class people like artists and musicians. Yeah, that makes as little sense as it sounds.

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  • Fair enough regarding MLB developmental leagues. But I wonder about unaffiliated minor league teams, and other so-called semi-pro sports. Some people just want to play a game that they know doesn’t offer them any prospect of big bucks, but making a few bucks makes it easier to fit it into their lives. Minimum wage would probably extinguish everything from women’s football to indoor lacrosse, and the players would not want that.

    I was in a resident theater company as a youth and I got room and board and a stipend which in today’s dollars would be maybe $100 a week, and I probably worked 70 hours or more. I loved it. So there are some situations that are more complicated.

    • Murc

      Some people just want to play a game that they know doesn’t offer them any prospect of big bucks, but making a few bucks makes it easier to fit it into their lives.

      I would submit that subsidizing a hobby is far, far less important than broader labor rights.

      • Well, yes, but this comes down to a question of whether there is a way to write law that draws the correct lines. I recognize that hard cases make bad law, I’m just sayin’.

    • randy khan

      There is nobody playing professional baseball at any level who is doing it as a hobby. Every single player in the independent leagues is hoping to be noticed and picked up by a team in organized baseball.

      • Well, that may be so — although I don’t know it for a fact — but taking away their opportunity is deciding that you know what’s best for them. It’s a debatable case, at the least. If a team doesn’t have MLB affiliation, there’s no way they can pay the players half decently.

        • busker type

          Maybe teams that can’t pay their players a living wage should be reorganized as non-profits. (obviously there is plenty of corruption in the non profit world leading to absurd pay for executives, etc. but in theory this should be a little more fair.)

          I agree that there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be allowed to play for the love of the game, the problem comes if other people are profiting from their labor and they are not.

          • catclub

            Maybe teams that can’t pay their players a living wage should be reorganized as non-profits

            Non-profit organizations are also hit by this rule.
            So-called supervisory employees who get less than $47k(?) are quite common in the non-profit world.

          • addicted44

            There are amateur leagues where the players pay to play.

            If you’re a professional league, then pay your players. If you cannot survive without paying your players, become an amateur league and charge all those hobbyist players who are playing just for the fun of it the costs involved with their enjoyment.

            This may be one of the most one-sided argument I may ever have been involved in.

          • los

            charity navigator and bake sales

            • los

              tailgate rummage sales parties

        • NonyNony

          If you’re talking about travel ball leagues then this isn’t going to affect them. Anymore than it would your local bowling league or Magic the Gathering Tournament.

          I honestly don’t know what you could mean outside of that. The teams in the MLB minor league system all pay their players and should either be paying minimum wage or should shutter themselves if they can’t afford to pay minimum wage. (Sorry but “my business is not viable if I’m not exploiting workers” is not a justification for passing laws to help you exploit your workers. Maybe you could hit the city up for a public-private partnership to help out if it really is the case that paying the players not-even-a-living-wage will force you to shutter the team but the city sees it as something worth supporting.)

          • Richard Hershberger

            He’s not talking about travel ball leagues. He’s talking about outfits like this:
            http://www.atlanticleague.com/ (at the top end) or
            https://www.frontierleague.com/ (lower down).

            The motivations for the players range wildly. Some were released from the affiliated minors or never got drafted, and are using the indy leagues as a desperate long shot to get into affiliated ball. Others, particularly at outfits like the Frontier League, are essentially taking a year off for fun. Some people hike across Europe; some play pro ball.

            It’s been a while since I payed close attention to indy ball. My guess is that the upper tier outfits like the Atlantic League could afford to pay legal salaries, while the low end probably could not.

            • randy khan

              In looking for information on minor league salaries, it sounds like the Atlantic League pays relatively well compared to the other indy leagues – the figures I saw were a minimum of $850 a month (obviously not really a living wage) and an average of $2,100 a month.

              • bender

                I looked up the history and league affiliations of the San Rafael Pacifics on Wikipedia. Four years ago, they were champions of a ten-team indie league that folded (the North American).

                Now they are in a four team league that used to have two Hawaiian teams (hence the league name) and currently has four teams located in small San Francisco Bay Area cities within a two hour drive of each other. According to Wikipedia, average pay in this league is $650 a month. Their home field is not far from where I live; I’ve been meaning to catch a game. This must be what baseball was like in the nineteenth century.

                ETA–this league is where the Sonoma Stompers play!

        • Darkrose

          The independent leagues are not relevant to this discussion, because it’s a direct result of the class-action suit by minor league players against MLB for colluding to suppress minor league salaries.

      • addicted44

        “Professional” baseball excludes people doing it as a hobby.

        It’s nice when you can win an argument solely by definition.

    • busker type

      there are some situations that are more complicated.

      yeah, but this is specifically about protecting a very wealthy institution from paying its workers minimum wage.

      It is interesting that the existence of a healthy minor league system has more or less kept baseball out of the NCAA grift. That means that MLB teams have to spend more on development, but the trade off is that they have more say in it… I imagine that’s why you don’t see so many Johnny Manziel-type flameouts when baseball players get to the big leagues. This is just a move by MLB to spend less on development, which is apparently worthwhile for them or else they would have gone the way of the NFL and NBA.

      • Bill Murray

        Baseball has certainly had plenty of Manziel-type flameouts although not that many in the very recent past.

      • Richard Hershberger

        It is interesting that the existence of a healthy minor league system has more or less kept baseball out of the NCAA grift.

        Yes and no. Baseball is poorly suited to college play because of the poor fit between the academic calendar and the baseball season. This goes a long ways toward explaining why football arose as the dominant college sport, even as baseball was at the height of its dominance of American sporting culture.

        Also, and likely more to the point nowadays, very few players of college graduate age are ready for the majors. Most break into the bigs in their mid-20s. They guys signed out of college typically go into A ball. The guys signed out of high school go into a rookie league and work their way up to A ball.

        MLB would be perfectly happy to let universities take on the expense of developing players, but there are structural reasons why they can’t do this.

  • sean_p

    Baseball had better be careful what they wish for. I think the most likely result of this would be a big drop in minor league participation, because people simply wouldn’t be able to afford to play anymore.

    • Warren Terra

      My understanding – and I haven’t been playing close attention – is that minor leaguers were getting screwed, that it looked like this might change (maybe the Obama Dept. of Labor threatened to do its job?), and this is a backlash intended to ensure the minor leaguers continue to get screwed. The key word being “continue”, so it’s not obvious why participation would drop so very much.

      • Darkrose

        Minor leaguers are getting screwed, and some of them have filed a class-action suit against MLB. The real reason for the strong pushback is because MLB is afraid that any legal victories might result in the loss of their anti-trust exemption.

      • Davis

        Sp perhaps treating them better would increase participation and therefore benefit MLB.

  • NickFlynn

    I think I read over on Hulk Hogan’s news site that Bustos withdrew her sponsorship of the bill, so there’s that.

  • Boots Day

    Bustos tweeted yesterday that she was withdrawing her support from this bill.

    Rep. Cheri Bustos ‏@RepCheri 23h23 hours ago
    After hearing from you & learning more in the last 24 hours, I’ve immediately withdrawn my support from H.R. 5580: http://1.usa.gov/297bQnT

    • timb

      Robbed me of my righteous anger that I was about to tweet to her too! Damn Internet, moving faster than I can be mad at people

      • Cam

        You can still have righteous anger over the fact that she sponsored a bill to give MiLB an exemption without bothering to examine the effects of it.

  • Darkrose

    I have nothing to add except to say that every baseball fan should read Grant Brisbee on a regular basis because he is awesome. And I’m not just saying that as a loyal minion reader of McCovey Chronicles.

  • N__B

    Baseball needs saving from the fembot hordes!

    • tsam

      Well this is fucking awesome. I’m telling you right now–they don’t allow women in baseball because they watch college women play softball and they’re fucking scared of them.

  • tsam

    I BEEN TO HILLSBOROUGH HOPS!

    (a game) and yes, I spelled that incorrectly on purpose. Also, it’s FRIDAY MOTHERFUCKERS W00t!!

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      Definitely time for some hops tonight. I used to live in Orenco, not too far from the Hops stadium.

  • JustRuss

    I had a friend who played minor league ball for a number of years. He was constantly moving, so if you’re married your spouse’s career is pretty much on hold too. And forget about having kids. Plus there’s the possibility of being cut from the team constantly hanging over your head. It’s no picnic.

    These guys are the foundation of the MLB money machine, paying them less than minimum wage is indefensible.

  • randy khan

    In fairness, players who have some success in the minors (say, they get up to high A or AA) generally have some prospects for a career in baseball as a coach or manager, maybe not with the pros, but with college, high school or travel teams. Still, the main point is right – players aren’t getting trained for much else, and many of them don’t have other skills or credentials in the first place. They should not be asked to trade off their ability to make something approximating a living wage against whatever prospects they have for reaching the majors, or even AAA, where wages are decent.

    And what makes it worse is that actual compensation is directly tied to the likelihood a player will make the big bucks – high draft choices get big signing bonuses, so they’re the players least affected by the wages. It’s the players with the worst chance of making the majors who need to get paid a decent wage.

    • catclub

      I just read David Foster Wallace’s piece from 1995 Esquire on that level of tennis player just below the top 10 pros.

      It is pretty much the same story. The only people who can afford to do it have pretty rich parents – for the $450k worth of training from 4 years old to 18 years old, plus travel,
      plus equipment.

      And the people who come through it fantastically love tennis,
      but they are surprisingly limited. He puts it as: they are today’s holy men – depriving themselves so we can watch them, but not do what they do.

  • This post needs to be updated with the information in BootsDay’s note above.

    • Cam

      This – Deadspin had an update up yesterday. The original story was from 2 days ago.

  • efc

    The issue is the “seasonal recreation or amusement establishment” exemption that minor league teams have used in the past to argue their employees are exempt from the FLSA has become less successful in the courts.

    Under the exception, any business providing amusement or recreational services to the public may pay its employees a sub-minimum wage (without overtime) should one of the following two conditions exist: either (a) the business does not operate for more than seven months in any calendar year, or (b) the business’s receipts from its six lowest revenue months in the previous year were less than 33 1/3% of its receipts in its six highest revenue months (e.g., the business’s receipts from April-September were at least three times greater than its receipts from October-March).
    http://sports-law.blogspot.com/2014/05/pro-sports-teams-and-fair-labor.html

    Courts have found against both conditions for teams (i.e. they “operate” more than 7 months a year and because off season revenue like season ticket sales, sponsorship deals, etc. they don’t meet prong (b) of the test). Courts have also found some teams do meet the exemption requirements.

    This bill seems to have been introduced in response to the “uncertainty” these decisions have created for minor league teams.

    • NonyNony

      That exemption also needs to go away entirely. Seasonal businesses should pay their employees minimum wage.

      Again – if your business model requires you to exploit workers at below poverty wages to be successful, your business should not exist. If society wants your business to exist anyway (as with a lot of sports teams) subsidies can and likely should be arranged to make it work. But the idea that you can’t afford to pay people a minimum wage therefore you shouldn’t have to is ludicrous no matter what business we’re talking about – even seasonal ones.

      • Lurking Canadian

        This

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    Brett Guthrie is my congresscritter. He probably wishes he could repeal the Fair Standards Act for his business.
    I will say it does get tiresome that neither Democrats nor Republicans run for my vote. Republicans in KY run away from my vote, and Democrats try to stay just this side of offending the few left-leaning voters.

  • NonyNony

    …Bustos has since withdrawn her support of her own bill in what Bill Shaikin calls “a flip flop monumental even by Washington standards.” Honestly, this is enough that her constituents should seek to primary her out of a job in 2018.

    Wait – she does the right thing when put under pressure from her constituents and so she should be voted out?

    That sounds ridiculous unless she’s got a long track record of screwups. I will admit that I’d prefer someone who is right every single time they take an action, but I’ll take someone who course corrects quickly when they are wrong and are pushed about it over someone who makes a mistake and then digs in and refuses to correct it.

    • Should the average Democrat be introducing bills that screw over the workers in the profession where their parents are chief lobbyists? I’d say that’s a problem, yes.

    • MyNameIsZweig

      I think the fact that she claims not to have known enough about the bill, yet co-sponsored it anyway is key here.

  • MikeJake

    I don’t see how this kind of piecemeal labor market tinkering from Congress is ever justified. It’s so… piddly.

  • efgoldman

    minor league baseball players live all of the round-the-clock lifestyle of MLB players

    That’s true in terms of the hours and effort, but not in terms of what we think of as “lifestyle.” MLB teams fly on private planes, stay in luxury hotels (mostly without roommates), eat high quality meals, all by contract. Minor leaguers usually travel by bus, stay in fleabag motels, and decide for dinner among whatever crappy fast food options are available. That plus the constant change of location, isn’t much of a “lifestyle.”

  • Calming Influence

    MLBs direct connection to farm teams could not be clearer (“sent down to…” or “brought up from…” is probably a Jeopardy question: “What is ‘the minors’?”).

    Salary them at a living wage, don’t require them visit nursing homes in their off time, help the 95% who won’t get called up with alternative career training. Make it fucking attractive, in other words. Attract ALL the best high school and college players, not just the ones willing to risk their future on a long shot.

    Christ, why are these people who have so much always such dicks about helping out the little guy? Even when helping the little guy might improve their bottom line?

    • Calming Influence

      P.S.: Go, Humboldt Crabs!

  • TroubleMaker13

    Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is doubling down and saying that minor league players aren’t really employees–they are creative class people like artists and musicians. Yeah, that makes as little sense as it sounds.

    I just want to call out the implied disdain for “creative class people”. Like artists and musicians aren’t entitled to fair and legal compensation.

    • Calming Influence

      “Creative class people” like artists and musicians crave the bohemian hippy lifestyle. They don’t want to be corrupted with filthy lucre. Don’t make trouble.

  • mikeSchilling

    This seems simple enough. Reclassify minor leaguers as interns, and don’t pay them at all.

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