Why You Should Support the Players in MLB’s Economic Dispute

As of recent, the focus of the baseball world has been completely centered around the possibility of a Major League Baseball season in 2020. It is to the dismay of fans across the country that the prospect of a season remains a possibility, and the chances appear grimmer by the day. The logistical issues surrounding a professional sports season during an ongoing pandemic are alone a tall task to solve, but the league has not even progressed to that part of the process yet. As of right now, the league’s owners and players are still attempting to agree on who gets paid what in the event that a season does happen. Many point out that the sport’s popularity will suffer if the conflict is not resolved soon, and I don’t disagree. However, at this point, the issue is bigger than baseball.

For those that are new to this controversy, let’s provide some context as to how we got here. On March 12, while Spring Training was still in session, Major League Baseball suspended all operations in response to the dramatic escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, revenue distribution has been the central issue concerning a return to play (that is, of course, excluding things outside of the league’s control such as the federal government’s response to the pandemic, and various state governments’ willingness to allow for a resume in play). On March 26, it was reported that the MLB Players’ Association (MLBPA) and the league office had reached an agreement on terms for the shortened season. The major aspects of the deal included an agreement that players would be credited with a full year of service time regardless of how long the season is, and a shortening of the upcoming First Year Player Draft to only five rounds (down from the usual 40). The most important aspect of the deal is that it decided that players’ would be paid a prorated salary depending on the length of the season (meaning players would, for example, get paid half their year’s salary if the season was only 81 games). This is important because the league office is now trying to renegotiate this part of the agreement and further decrease player salaries. These negotiations about further decreasing salaries are currently ongoing.

From the fan’s perspective, this situation begs the question of who is at fault and what ought to be done to fix it. While, as you can tell by the title of this article that I believe the players are in the right, I have seen countless fans on Twitter advocating for the opposite side. Although I disagree with these people’s position, I can understand where they are coming from. Right now in the United States, unemployment rates are as high as they have been since the Great Depression, and people are struggling to get by financially. From this perspective, it seems in bad taste that a Major League Baseball player who makes $30 million per year is not willing to settle for just under $7 million (according to Jeff Passan, a player making $30 million would make $6.95 million under the league’s initial proposal this week).

We’re all making sacrifices, they’d argue, there’s no reason these millionaires should hold out for more money. It is also worth noting that, according to Forbes, there is a provision stating that salaries could be renegotiated if the season is played without fans in stadiums (which is almost certain to happen). This puts a hole in the MLBPA’s argument that salaries have already been finalized. However, this article is not titled “Why the Players Have More Leverage in MLB’s Labor Dispute,” and I believe it is important to explore the moral consequences of current developments before making a personal judgement.

In this dispute, the owners essentially have one goal as it pertains to Major League players’ salaries. That goal is a 50/50 revenue share between the players and the owners. This initially seems fair, as in these unprecedented times it makes sense that both sides would take an equal hit. The problem with that is that this proposal gives the players a higher revenue share than they have gotten in any other year. So why would the owners want to share more revenue with the players? Because revenue will be negative. The 50/50 proposal is essentially asking the players to take an equal amount of the losses by increasing their skin in the game. This is perhaps the biggest reason why the proposal from the owners is completely unfair to the players. As league revenue plummets amid the pandemic, the league wants to lower player salaries in response to less money coming in. This, again, makes sense on its own. However, when the league breaks records in how much revenue they rake in, as they did in 2019, they don’t increase player salaries because of more money coming in. That extra cash flow goes right into the pocket of your team’s billionaire owner. The players signed contracts, so they get their agreed upon amount but nothing more. But when the league loses money, that agreed upon amount in the contract goes out the window in the eyes of league. What they are doing is excluding players from benefiting from increased profits, but including them to suffer from huge losses. The owners are trying to socialize league losses while privatizing league profits, and the result in the players getting royally screwed.

Even after seeing this side of the argument, many people will still take the owners’ side. The argument here is that most of these players are millionaires (and even the players making the league minimum still make over half a million per year), and money isn’t a problem for them. Therefore, they should just suck it up and play for less money. Again, put in the context of the millions of unemployed working class people in this country, I can see how one could arrive at this conclusion. But in reality it is a view that I struggle to understand. The real issue with this line of thinking is that the context of millions unemployed isn’t particularly relevant here. This is a bilateral dispute, and really the only context we need is the other side. So, to put it in that context, we’re looking at the players, who are millionaires, arguing over money with the owners, who are billionaires. This might just sound like two sides that are essentially the same, until we factor in that most MLB owners are several hundred times richer than the average MLB player. If you think the players are being greedy by not just letting that money go, think about where the money is going if they do let it go. If the players are financially secure enough to surrender most of their salary, then certainly the owners can take just as big a hit in their paycheck. It is clear that one side has less of a necessity for this money than the other, and it is the owners.

Lastly, it is important to address the middle-of-the-road view, the view that both sides are just rich greedy hacks and both are at fault. In many cases, this line of thinking is just as destructive as the anti-player sentiment, as it creates a false equivalence that reflects both harshly and unfairly on the players. So, to combat the argument that both sides are the same, let’s think of some ways that they are different. It has already been mentioned that even though by general standards both sides are very wealthy, the owners are astronomically more wealthy and less dependent on getting their cut of league revenue (also, it is important to consider that the MLBPA is fighting for minor league players’ salaries as well. Even if you have no sympathy for millionaire players, many players in the minors do live paycheck-to-paycheck and losing their income source would be devastating). Also, it is important to look at who is more entitled to this money in the first place. This is a subjective question, but it undoubtedly draws a contrast between the two sides of this dispute. One of the sides, the players, are the workers that actually create the product that brings in so much revenue in the first place. The owners, while taking an array of administrative duties, mostly just own the club. I think it is fair to say that one side of this dispute is more justified in their pursuit of more money than the other.

As fans, in the end we just want to see baseball come back. However, in my view, a simple desire for an agreement to be reached cannot overrule any sort of moral conscience for the process that gets us there. There are two sides to this debate, the players and the owners. One of the sides is trying to get their fair share of a revenue pool that they created, or in other words is trying to “reap the fruits of their own labor.” The other side is trying to make a cash grab so they don’t have to sell a yacht. I wouldn’t phrase this in such a one-sided manner if it wasn’t the reality of the situation. Owners have given staggering numbers (and, according to some sources, exaggerated numbers) of how much money they are going to lose in order to drum up public support for their immoral cash grab. They portray themselves as equally as financially vulnerable as anyone else in order to create the illusion of an even playing field with their opposition in this dispute. These people are motivated by nothing other than their own selfish greed, and sentiment in their favor only contributes to the issue. The best explanation I can come up with for this sentiment is that the players are the most vulnerable in this conflict, and thus the easiest way to get baseball back as soon as possible is for them to cave to the owners. What I simply ask of every fan is to consider the implications of this controversy outside of how soon baseball gets back on your TV. The players are not obligated to capitulate their hard earned money that they contractually agreed to get to their bosses that are hundreds of times richer than them because you want to watch baseball now.

Featured Image: User slgckgc on Flickr

Peter Khayat

I am a college student originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio. I am both a fam of and primary cover the Cleveland Guardians. Follow me on Twitter: @xwOBA

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