Trying to live the dream on low wages

Will baseball be the next battle ground for the minimum wage argument?
Will baseball be the next battle ground for the minimum wage argument?

We probably all know some young man who has spent much of his early life playing baseball. They grow up with the dream of getting ever better and eventually making it to the “show.” I watched the young man across the street throw tens of thousands of balls in the street. He became a star on the high school team and was the starting quarterback on the football team. He loved to throw balls. He was good enough to get drafted out of high school, but declined and went to college on a baseball scholarship. Out of college he got drafted again and went to the minor leagues. He was good. A 95 mile an hour fastball, but then he got injured and that slowed his progress. Once healed, he went back to his minor league team but he was just not the same. Eventually he left, got married and started in business.

Poor pay

He would tell me of the travel and the living conditions. Life was hard because the pay was low. He was making just over $1000 a month. During the season he could not have a second job, the travel and the training made that impossible. He stuck with it for several years because of the chance for living his dream. But his dream got dulled by the low pay and tough conditions. He wanted to start a family but on that pay it was tough. So he quit and went into sales. When a player makes it to the major leagues they are guaranteed $500,000 a year. Of course there is no guarantee they will remain there. And there is no guarantee they will have long careers making millions of dollars. Most players never get there.

Violation of the FLSA

One former minor league player is now an attorney and has taken on the task of helping players. He has filed a lawsuit on behalf of players in an attempt to get them a minimum living wage. Garrett Broshuis now represents 32 players and has filed a lawsuit that claims the wages paid these players are a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The players claim they work between 60-70 per week and receive less than minimum wage and no overtime. According to attorney and  founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, Michael McCann, these players are not paid for instructional league play. They are seeking back pay for uncompensated and under-compensated time.

Baseball’s defense

MLB and owners naturally have mounted a defense. The quickest defense is that these guys knew what they are getting in to and signed a contract. If they didn’t want to play for that compensation then they should not have signed. This is a similar argument that people have made about almost all minimum wage jobs that people are now protesting against. I have even said “If you don’t want to work for what is offered then don’t take it. Go somewhere else.” With baseball there is a somewhat different story. This is your dream. No one that I know has ever dreamed about working at McDonalds. If they had I suspect they would have worked hard enough to advance and make more money. At Chick-fil-a a high number of franchise owners started off as a minimum wage employee and eventually worked up to being able to buy a franchise. I admit there is a lot of pressure to sign that contract. Agents, friends, and parents all talk about that dream of being a big-leaguer and making that money. So they sign that contract voluntarily. It is not the owners’ fault they fall short or don’t exhibit enough talent to progress. Another interesting twist is that when they make it they are considered “professionals”. Under the FLSA there is an exemption from overtime. There is a minimum wage of $455 per week, but for that wage an employee can be required to work any number of hours. I am not sure how much of a defense this may be for MLB. McCann mentions that there are some other defenses, such as economics and statute of limitations, but he thinks this will definitely be a case to watch.

Increased attention

With the national debate that is currently being waged on minimum wage Garrett Broshuis’ lawsuit may get some extra attention and sympathy. He will have to do some education with the public in general however, as most of us don’t really know how little minor leaguers make and for many of us there is a visceral reaction to complaining about getting paid to play a game. But then we go an buy our tickets for all sorts of sports that pay players millions of dollars. It is all part of a national awareness that is growing focusing on increasing minimum wages. This movement is fostered by unions who stand to be the beneficiary of increased wages as they result in higher dues payments. It will be interesting to watch how much support the Players Union will give this lawsuit.

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