Minor Leaguers Sue MLB Over Wages That Would Make McDonald’s Blush

Source: Gamma Man / Flickr Creative Commons

Strike the MLB off the list of leagues that have a relatively painless rapport with their players. While baseball has yet to develop the just barely concealed antagonism that the NFL shares with the players who drive its profits, the news that a group of minor league players is suing the organization that runs the highest level of the quintessential American sport (regardless of how many people are finally starting to watch soccer) was met with a resigned “well, of course,” rather than any sort of real outrage. It’s no secret that the minors for any sport pay significantly less than the glitziest echelons, but the fact that farm league veterans get paid salaries closer to NFL cheerleaders than NBA D-Leaguers is still rather concerning.

“[M]ost minor leaguers earn between $3,000 and $7,500 a season,” reports ESPN‘s Mina Kims, before going on to say that less than 20 percent of the guys filling the ranks will ever make it to the majors. According to one of the plantiffs, Matt Lawson, formerly of the Seattle, Cleveland, and Texas development ranks, the most he ever made in one year was right around $11,000. Using some napkin arithmetic, that is around $3,000 below what the federal minimum wage would pay out over the same amount of time (before taxes). Lawson was allegedly paid $3,000 for his first year in the minor leagues, or less than a quarter what he would’ve made flipping burgers.

To some people, particularly people unaffected by the economic realities of using sports as a major source of income, this is all right — the rationale being that, you know, they’re not flipping burgers or doing some kind of categorically unglamorous job. They are living the dream, or so the thought process goes, and they’re in it “for the love of the game.” It’s the same line of thinking that doesn’t believe the NCAA is doing anything unethical by not paying its players. It’s also categorically wrong.

Source: Not that Bob James / Flickr Creative Commons

The notion that any sort of minimum wage can be flouted because, essentially, the job involves playing a game, is catastrophically shortsighted, and feels less like a reasoned approach to a complicated problem and more like a knee-jerk reaction to personal job dissatisfaction. If, as the players’ lawsuit describes, minor league wages have actually declined from the 1970s, then the class-action suit is correct in wrangling for an injunction against the MLB’s pay system, as well as damages and back pay. Especially if the players were not reimbursed for their time in training.

In the ESPN article, Kims talked to a sports economist who pointed out that “[t]icket prices are based on demand, and demand is based on the quality of the product, not the cost of providing the product,” which is to say that increasing the pay of minor league players is not inevitably going to have an effect on the affordable enjoyment that the minor leagues provide. If that’s the case, there’s no reason why farm teams should be fielding players who aren’t making a living wage. We hear that the love of the game doesn’t cover rent, and it’s not very nutritious, either.