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How Congress screwed over Minor League Baseball players, explained

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The U.S. Senate approved on a spending bill worth $1.3 trillion early Friday morning. There are many facets of American life being touched by the various provisions sprinkled throughout the bill, but one in particular is of interest here because we’re a sports site. And it’s about baseball.

Where did this provision come from?

In 2016, the Save America’s Pastime Act was introduced as a bill by two members of congress, Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.). Similar to this updated provision, the bill purported to protect baseball by helping teams who would be at risk of teetering economically should they have to start contributing to their own payrolls under a potentially altered business model (which they don’t currently). The actual reason is just owners wanted to save money and this was a bill that would pave the way.

Shortly after announcing she was co-sponsoring the bill Bustos dropped her support after negative press and general outrage, and it never gained enough support to be passed into law.

What is the exact part of the bill you need to know about?

The passage that would directly affect minor league players is buried deep in the bill, more than 1,900 pages in, and it reads:

[A]ny employee employed to play baseball who is compensated pursuant to a contract that provides for a weekly salary for services performed during the league’s championship season (but not on spring training or the off season) at a rate that is not less than a weekly salary equal to the minimum wage under section 6(a) for a workweek of 40 hours, irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.

The last phrase is the most important, as it means players won’t be able to collect overtime pay which is already a serious issue pervading the minors. Players work far more than 40 hours when you consider travel time, time spent at the ballpark pre-game and post-game, and other workouts.

Why was this provision included in this spending bill?

To put it succinctly: to save teams money. Players aren’t paid by minor league teams, they’re paid by the affiliated MLB clubs who are always searching for more ways to pay players less money. In the wake of unfair wage lawsuits taken up against the league by players — which the league has emerged victorious from so far — MLB is pushing harder than ever to make sure minor leaguers are not privy to the benefits of normal hourly workers, lobbying lawmakers constantly to push this into law. That lobbying led to the inclusion of a baseball wage provision in an otherwise unrelated and massive spending bill.

What does it mean that this passed?

The part that changes the life of minor leaguers the most is that they would no longer be eligible for overtime pay, wouldn’t get paid for spring training, and therefore would have to work harder in the offseason to make up that difference in pay. Most minor league players already pick up jobs in the offseason instead of being able to focus on their career as an athlete, and this would make budgeting even tighter for them and their families.

On paper, players could get a slight raise in the short term, but at the expense of being able to effectively fight for future changes to the system that would guarantee them living wages. Right now, the minimum sits at $1,100 a month. This bill would raise it to $1,160 a month for 40-hour workweeks, which is far from being enough of a raise to make this worth it, never mind be an actual fair wage for thousands of people who play minor league baseball every year.

Why should you care?

Because, presumably if you’re reading this, you are a fan of baseball and the players who are striving to make their dreams come true by playing a game they love. Even the players who have essentially no shot at ever making it to The Show — the career minor league guys, the ones who will retire to focus on their families after only a few years — deserve to be paid a fair wage during their time in small cities paying their way through season after season of minor league ball. Generally, anyone being excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act is a bad thing.

And if you’re not a baseball fan, an entire workforce being exploited so a group of billionaires can pad their pockets with a few more dollars shouldn’t be your hope for the world. And if it is, and you don’t understand why that isn’t the ideal outlook on life, then we probably can’t help you.

Can’t the MLBPA do something about this?

They could ... if minor league players were a part of the union. Which they are not, because it is easier for the MLBPA to leverage the young, unknown players circulating through the minors in order to improve the situation for players already in the major leagues. Anyone not on a 40-man roster (which is a lot of players!) isn’t protected by the union, which makes it harder for them to negotiate better contracts or avoid being taken advantage of. If you think the league cares, all you have to do is the read recent comments made by Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Connor to remember they do not.