This Isn't About Sports, It's About Labor

Ed Zitron 7 min read

You would think that, as the owner of a sports team, you would be laser-focused on making sure that the sports team was playing the sport in question.

You would be wrong.

Major League Baseball - by which I mean the owners of the thirty Major League Baseball teams - and the Major League Baseball Players Association (the players’ union) are currently in a bitter battle that means that we currently don’t know when baseball will return due to an arbitrary deadline set today by the league’s owners.

Here’s a great summary:

In plainer terms, what has happened is that the two sides spent most of the week making concessions on what they both consider minor, peripheral issues. It was progress, and if not progress on the big stuff, it represented hope that momentum and mutual concessions would lead to serious movement as the deadline ticked closer. It sparked something resembling optimism. And then, in the last couple of days, the MLBPA finally started to make concessions on significant sticking points. The owners responded to the players’ willingness to reach a deal by refusing to budge.

There is a lot more to it in each side's exact concessions and demands, but what we are currently witnessing is a high-profile public relations battle in which incredibly rich baseball team owners cry and lie about how little money they make. To be clear, they make a great deal. They just want the ability to control as much of the sport as possible without participating, which involves but isn’t limited to how much they have to pay to do so.

And the actual victims are the players because the owners (assuming they get their demands) are quite happy for nobody to play baseball until they’re satisfied, as they will profit long-term based on their demands being met.

The subject of today’s newsletter is not sport, or baseball, or really anything other than sheer corporate greed. The outward press push by owners is to frame baseball players as mewling multi-millionaire babies that are ungrateful for the money they receive and should focus on playing baseball. This insidious, incorrect, and ignorant thinking is the result of decades of the league trying to distance itself from the truth - that they screw their workers (who are by definition unnaturally talented and thus a valuable, hard-to-replace asset) out of their ability to make more money, or play somewhere else, or have any mobility at all:

The MLBPA grew into the strongest union in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s by marrying morality and money -- by fighting for itself and for the betterment of the game simultaneously. Now, following a quarter-century of labor peace and the relative complacency that accompanied it, the players are energized and engaged beyond what even they expected.

Easy as it is to point to the average major league salary ($4.17 million last Opening Day) as a sign players aren't on the wrong end of anything, it's also facile. Finance in sports is a zero-sum game. What doesn't go to the players goes to the league and teams, and owners control how their teams spend money. Since the 1994 player strike that canceled the World Series -- and especially over the last two collective bargaining agreements -- the league has through canny negotiating positioned itself to be the aggressor, a role with which it has grown comfortable and familiar.

We are in the midst of a multi-billion dollar labor dispute that is understandably dismissed by many as a “just sports.” Major League Baseball player pay has decreased for four consecutive years, and players are, for the most part, asking for a larger part of the continually-increasing amount of money that the team owners are making. The owners of these franchises are claiming that they are destitute, continually making spurious arguments to frame themselves as the victims of receiving billions of dollars.

The exact details of the demands from baseball players are exceedingly detailed but really come down to players wanting to make more money - by which I mean increasing the minimum they are paid - and their ability to take their services elsewhere. This includes but isn’t limited to baseball’s anti-worker rookie contracts, which require six years of service to enter free agency, and three to negotiate (known as arbitration) their salary at all. To frame this without the need for sports knowledge, imagine if you were the literal best player at your position in the world, a godlike figure - and imagine if you were paid the rookie salary. And the rules of your job mean you couldn’t make more money or negotiate a salary, and when you were finally able to, your boss is the one who is responsible for the metrics to judge your worth.

The kicker? This is service time in baseball’s major leagues, and teams are more than happy to play games with how long a player’s on the field specifically to keep them for longer and cheaper. To put it in business person terms, imagine if you were not able to change job for six years, and could demote you at random (which you have no choice in) to make it so that this now took seven years.

As I’ve said in the headline, this isn’t about sport. This is about labor rights, and how ultra-wealthy individuals have created a masterful capitalist coterie used to suppress their workers for profit. Major League Baseball’s owners want you to believe that players are greedy, all the while suppressing their pay, mobility, and in this case their ability to make any money at all.

These owners also desperately want you to stop reading this and think “this is about sport,” because it’s much easier if this is framed as a sport problem. If this is just about sports, the onus is on the players to bend - they are the ones “refusing to play” because of some “little details” that are by and large about protecting the interests of those that risk the most to make the owners money - the players. If this is just about sports, the players - who make a lot of money compared to a regular person - are simply other rich people, and you don’t need to worry about it because they’re “gonna be fine.”

Except that both isn’t the case and isn’t the right way to view things. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan said, “what doesn't go to the players goes to the league and teams, and owners control how their teams spend money,” which in line with the lack of increase in salaries creates an extremely unfair labor environment - one where players are under constant pressure to both reach their physical and professional peak and not get injured. Furthermore, Major League Baseball also has the ability to hurt Minor League Baseball players (who do not have a union and are often paid extremely poorly) by doing stuff like reducing the amount of Minor League players that can be kept on a Major League Team’s roster.

These are not benevolent old men who just want to hear the crack of the bat and sing in the 7th inning - they are greedy, malicious and cruel. They want to be framed as finding the fastest path to you seeing baseball, but they’re the ones who continually dragged out this process for a year, oftentimes pairing concessions with arbitrary additional rules with no room for negotiation.

If you’re reading this and wondering why I care about it, it’s because I just got into baseball. This is my first season where I’ve been genuinely excited and engaged to enjoy it, and I am the prime target for the rhetoric of the owners, someone that is eager to watch more baseball but who is not ingrained in the finer details of the game. The relevance to this newsletter is that this is a public attempt by exceedingly wealthy individuals to suppress and oppress workers. While it’s easy to disregard professional sports players as the rich, they are workers, and they spend their entire lives on their jobs, working from childhood to get terribly paid in the minor leagues - all while keeping their bodies in incredible physical shape and also being good at the sport - to one day maybe get a shot at making really good money.

And, of course, many players do not even reach free agency. They make rookie contract money for their entire careers, and then they are done, because they cannot leave the team until after six years of “full service.” All while dedicating their life to a skill that’s only really useful in one job, a job that they do not get to leave for six years that can be elongated based on the whims of the guys making money off of them.

The better they get, the more scrutiny they are under, and the more people ask of them. While they are well-paid, the odds are against them - and they are being exploited by wealthy people that often have their stadiums paid for in part by your tax dollars. If an owner has a bad day, or twists their ankle, or bashes their knee, that’s an annoying trip to the doctors. If the same happens to a player, that is one day on the job they won’t have, and one more chance for someone else to take their place.

In short, the workers - the baseball players - shoulder almost the entirety of the risk of playing baseball, all while the owners make incredible profits without really having to do anything. One might argue that the owners don’t even care if the team’s good - the Baltimore Orioles, one of the worst teams in sports, is still worth $1.28 billion thanks to profitable media rights deals and, of course, ticket and merchandise sales. And yet if the players had the same “just show up” attitude, there’s little likelihood they’d be signed again, because they actually have to do something for their money.

I challenge you, non-sports-watchers, to pay attention to this fight, because it is one where powerful forces are desperate to manipulate people into believing they are the victim. Every accusation they’re making of the players - that they’re lazy, that they’re greedy, that they “just don’t want to see baseball happen” - is a reflection of their own desires.

These owners don’t give a damn about baseball, or baseball players, or baseball fans - they care about finding any possible way to extract as much money as possible from people that are entertained by underpaid workers risking their physical health.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this newsletter linked to a random accounting firm, rather than the link I meant to put. I have no grievance with the people of Mazon Associates, who I assume will get a few very confused clicks today.

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