The Senate Judiciary Committee is questioning the legality of Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, and on Tuesday published a letter addressed to the group the Advocates for Minor League Players asking about its effect on players’ lives.
The letter is a bipartisan effort spearheaded by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The Judiciary Committee letter marks the first substantial step taken by the federal government to challenge the legality of MLB’s antitrust exemption.
“We are writing to seek information on how baseball’s antitrust exemption is affecting competition in the job market for minor league players, as well as the operations of minor league teams,” the letter says.
The questions in the letter include: what effect the antitrust exemption has on the occurrence of lockouts and work stoppages at the MLB level; what role the antitrust exemption plays in requiring all minor league players to sign a uniform player contract; and what effect the removal of the antitrust exemption would have on minor league working conditions. It also asks about the extent of corruption and abuse in the international prospect market and whether the antitrust exemption has any role in allowing these signing practices.
The letter represents the most comprehensive challenge to MLB’s antitrust exemption at the federal level. The matter had reached the Supreme Court twice since 1922 (1953 and 1972), and a 2017 challenge failed in the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
“We need to examine how Major League Baseball’s 100-year antitrust exemption is affecting the operation of minor league baseball teams and the ability of minor league players to make a decent living,” Durbin wrote. “This bipartisan request for information will help inform the Committee about the impact of this waiver, especially when it comes to minor league and international prospects. We need to ensure that all professional players are able to play on a fair and level field.”
Grassley wrote: “This is about ensuring a level game for the minor leagues and their players. MLB’s special antitrust exemption should not impose contracting or labor issues on minor league teams and players. Baseball is the hobby of America and that means more than just the big leagues.”
Prohibiting MLB’s antitrust exemption would fundamentally alter the business of baseball in America.
The uniform player contract signed by each minor league player states that teams control the rights to players for up to seven years in the minor leagues and seven years in the major leagues. Due to the antitrust exemption, if a minor league player decides to stop playing the sport before age seven in the minor or major leagues, the player’s rights are owned by the team and they cannot play the sport professionally elsewhere unless be released from your contract. .
“Minor league players are by far the group most negatively affected by baseball’s antitrust exemption,” said Advocates for Minor League Players director Harry Marino. “MLB owners should not be given a special license to underpay their workers. We trust that Congress will recognize this through this process and ultimately repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption as it pertains to to issues related to minor league players.
Of the four major sports in the United States, baseball is the only one with an antitrust exemption. MLB has operated under an antitrust exemption since 1922 after the Supreme Court ruled the league could suppress wages and make business decisions by operating outside antitrust rules.
As a result of the antitrust exemption, baseball players who sign the uniform player contract cannot seek better wages elsewhere. In 2022, minor league players will earn an annual salary of between $4,800 and $15,400. The US federal poverty guideline for one person in most states in 2022 is $13,590.
There have been previous attempts in the federal government to remove MLB’s special antitrust exemption. In March 2022, Durbin tweeted that “it’s time to reconsider MLB’s special antitrust exemption, which allows them to act as a legal monopoly.”
Sen. Judiciary Committee member Lee introduced a bill called the Professional Baseball Competition Act that is supported by three other Republicans on the panel, including Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. Introducing the bill, Lee said antitrust laws enhance competition and competition benefits consumers by lowering price and increasing quality.
“There is no reason Major League Baseball should be treated any differently than any other professional sports league in America,” Lee said in April 2021. “There is no reason they should be given preferential treatment relative to the NFL or the NBA, or any other professional athletic organization.
In addition, four minor league teams filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in late December arguing that Major League Baseball’s decision to terminate those clubs’ affiliation with the major leagues represented anti-competitive behavior that violated federal antitrust laws, which represented collusion on the part of MLB to eliminate the role of the free market in determining the fate of franchises.
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Senate questions MLB antitrust exemption