A recently-dismissed lawsuit brought against MLB by current and former minor league players had little chance of success because it challenged MLB’s deeply-entrenched antitrust exemption. It could have been viewed as ill-advised, but in the plaintiffs’ defense, other options aren’t much more attractive.
Short of an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, this MLB antitrust lawsuit has probably seen its last day in court. Thus perishes one more avenue through which minor league baseball players could have used the force of law to improve their wages. The other avenues don’t look much more promising.
On June 26, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court decision to dismiss the case in 2015. The four plaintiffs – Cirilo Cruz, Jeffrey Dominguez, Sergio Miranda and Jorge Padilla – can now either appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States or abandon this particular legal strategy.
According to Nathaniel Grow, who is the associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, the options for this quartet of current and former MiLB players are few and don’t look very promising.
“Aside from a Supreme Court appeal, which I think is a real long-shot, there are a couple other potential paths forward from an antitrust perspective,” Grow commented. “I don’t think any of them are very likely to succeed. First, the plaintiffs could also petition [the United States] Congress and ask it to repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption. That option looks appealing considering that Congress appeared to expressly exclude minor league players from the antitrust laws in the Curt Flood Act of 1998, however, their odds of success on that front are quite slim. Theoretically, the minor leaguers could also look to file a new suit in a different jurisdiction that has traditionally adopted a narrower view of MLB’s antitrust exemption. The Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is one such court. But even there, I’m not sure the case would have legs given the Curt Flood Act and the three Supreme Court precedents [supporting MLB’s antitrust exemption].”
Going forward with the antitrust angle now looks like a fool’s errand, but there already is another group of current and former minor league players trying to arrive at the same end from a different angle.
“Outside of antitrust litigation, the other legal avenue for relief is the Senne lawsuit out in California, asserting that minor league baseball’s pay practices violate the federal minimum wage and overtime laws,” Grow added. “While the players’ chances of success in that case are uncertain, they are almost certainly stronger than any of the options outlined above. That case wouldn’t be a huge windfall for the players, as it would only assure them the right to minimum wage and overtime, but it would potentially open the door for MLB to rethink its minor league pay practices.”
The Senne lawsuit is currently on hold while the court decides whether or not it can receive class-action certification. A failure to achieve that designation could mean the end of that legal activity. There is one strategy that is sure to achieve the ends that the players involved in the antitrust and minimum wage lawsuits both seek, but unfortunately, it’s also the most unlikely to even be attempted by current minor league players.
The most effective method of raising wages and other conditions for MiLB players would be for the players in each of the disparate leagues to form unions. Just like their MLB sisters, the leagues and franchises need labor to run their businesses. Depriving them of that labor would force them to come to the bargaining table.
There are several reasons why that is highly unlikely to happen, however.
“People have tried to organize the minor leaguers on several occasions in the past, and the players have never had the appetite for it,” Grow added. “I’m not sure that the odds of that happening are any better than the various legal options above. I just don’t think MiLB players are ready to unionize. They aren’t willing to rock the boat and risk derailing a potential MLB career. The combination of their youth and fairly short career windows makes it tough. So many of these guys wash out after a couple years, so they don’t have enough time in the system to become motivated to form a union. A fair number are from Latin America, and consider the existing MiLB conditions to be an improvement on where they were living in their homeland. It’s a tough sell, even if the benefits are obvious to those of us outside the system.”
While unionization seems the most unlikely, it stands the best chance of success if MiLB players are ever going to see wages above where they have to live in strangers’ basements to survive. The fear of undesirable consequences, like losing your chance at an MLB roster spot, is strong. If you aren’t willing to exhaust all options to improve your situation, however, then obviously part of the status quo is desirable to you. In this case it’s fairly obvious that an MLB career is desirable, but the fact that these lawsuits have been brought against MLB make it fair to speculate on whether a time will come that massive amounts of MiLB players will decide that the potential loss of an MLB career is worth potentially getting compensated better.
The old axiom – nothing ventured, nothing gained – is relevant here. It would be a huge risk, but the potential reward is on the same level.