New bill gives MLB free pass on paying overtime

Spring is here, and with it, baseball. MLB teams have spent the past month in Florida and Arizona, preparing for the long season, which begins March 29. The new season brings with it plenty of storylines, but perhaps the most intriguing plot point in the baseball world comes not from the the sunshine and clipped grass of spring training, but from our nation’s capital.

Last Friday, after threatening a veto that very morning, President Trump signed into law the $1.3 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill passed by Congress. On page 1,967 of the bill, tucked quietly between a provision amending the National Child Protection Act and a provision aiming to prevent abuse in youth sports, is a provision titled the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” This tiny provision—fewer than 150 words—amends section 13(a) of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act in regard to minor-league baseball players.

During the season, no matter how many hours minor leaguers spend on baseball activities—practices, soft toss, bus rides, time in the training room—they aren’t required to be paid beyond the 40-hour threshold. With the federal minimum wage still at $7.25 an hour, that means players are guaranteed only about $1,160 a month. Players are only required to be paid during the season.

It goes without saying that many minor-leaguers already find second jobs during the offseason, if not during the season as well.

It’s not like the provision is helping out a small business in need. Minor League teams are overseen by the Major League teams, who set the salaries. Why does Congress, in the middle of a significant spending bill, amidst all the other stuff on its plate, feel compelled to exempt Major League Baseball, a multibillion dollar organization, from paying overtime to its employees who already in some cases live below the poverty line?

The idea of exempting minor-league baseball players from overtime regulations is not new. In 2014, Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY) brought to Congress a bill also titled the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which aimed to do the same. Met with backlash, Bustos quickly ran from her own bill, and the act stalled (Washington Post, “After outcry over minor league baseball bill, congresswoman can’t disown it fast enough,” 6.30.2016).

America’s pastime needs saving. The sport isn’t popular with young people and has struggled to market stars. The MLB has tried to evolve, most notably its pace-of-play, but baseball at its core—slow, strategic, romantic—likely just isn’t well suited to this modern age. Paying minor leaguers less is not going to save America’s pastime.

So why then do congress representatives keep bringing it up? Perhaps because the MLB wants it. According to opensecrets.org, the MLB spent nearly $1.4 million on lobbying in both 2016 and 2017. This sudden spending increase takes on a new light when you consider that the league has been fighting a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a group of ex–minor league players alleging failure to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (Fansided, “Senne v. Royals is the case that could change Major League Baseball,” 10.25.2017).

As best as I could find, Major League Baseball has not responded to questions regarding the bill.

There are multiple angles defending MLB that I’ve seen floating around the internet. “This isn’t normal labor,” argues one. “They’re more like apprenticeships.” Another suggests that we don’t want to be telling young players they can’t work extra hours on their skills. I’ve also seen the argument that it’s just the market talking and if players don’t like the compensation they can find a different job. This last take ignores the fact that the MLB is actually exempt from antitrust laws, but to me that’s beside the point anyway. To me it comes down to this: We don’t need to try to come up with creative angles to analyze the situation. Major League Baseball pulls in billions of dollars. Why should it be exempt from federal law?

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