News came down yesterday that the Northwestern football team had won the right to vote to create a labor union because the National Labor Relations Board determined that the players were essentially University employees. The case will likely be appealed for a long time before anything of consequence really occurs, but a very good case can be put together that we will one day see that event as a significant turning point in the history of "amateur" athletics.
This brings us to baseball, which is different from the other two major American sports in that the NCAA is not its primary feeder system to the Major Leagues (the NHL's feeder system is an entirely different beast that I honestly do not understand). MLB has its own system of minor league affiliates that prospective Major Leaguers enter after high school or spending 3 or 4 years in College. The players are paid professionals who are free to devote their time to baseball and baseball only.
So should people thinking about football and basketball look to baseball as a better "feeder league" model? Better, yes; but fair, no. Most minor league baseball players are essentially college athletes who are not in school; they're given lodging, food, and a bit of spending money but have little to no power to negotiate their own compensation. Beyond the relatively few early rounders who get 6 (or 7) figure signing bonuses, most players get a modest one-time sum ranging from basically nothing up to maybe $50,000 based on their draft slot (restricted by the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement) and then are paid something between $1,200 and $4,000 per month, depending on the level they are assigned. Only about one in six ever play a game in the Major Leagues, according to some excellent research done by Baseball America, and that's the only way to make the prorated minimum of $500,000 per year and get eventual access to pension plans guaranteed by MLBPA. And those checks only come in during the playing season of March-September. The rest of the year, many minor leaguers pick up other jobs.
The central issue with minor league players is, of course, their lack of representation. Like any union, the MLBPA exists to look out for the interests of its members, those being people who already play professional baseball at the major league level. Examples of restricting the flow of talent into a profession to protect current members' salaries is not uncommon to baseball, nor is it uncommon to just sports as an industry, for that matter. In their most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFLPA agreed to amend the rookie pay scale to push down salaries for new draft picks. In the NBA, new Commissioner Adam Silver has said that it is one of his main priorities to raise the league age limit to 20 and has not been faced with opposition from current NBA players. And in MLB, minor leaguers are sometimes paid below minimum wage and subject to different drug testing rules than MLBers, including random testing for drugs classified as non-performance enhancing. The last CBA also set new, hard caps on how much each team can spend in the draft overall to keep bonuses down. The common thread in all of these agreements is owners making young talent cheaper for themselves because current athletes in each league have an interest in making it more difficult for their colleagues in the feeder leagues to threaten their own financial security.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations that directly affect minor league players currently are completely negotiated by MLBPA representatives. That is obviously unfair, because MLBPA has no obligation or reason to bargain for minor leaguers, but neither party involved currently has any incentive to change the arrangement. Why would MLB owners want to give up their ability to unilaterally decide how much money they can pay the 83% of players in their organizations who will never play a game for their major league club? And why would those who have already made it to MLB want to give up any money that could go to their own salaries when they are already haggling with owners over every dollar?
There is no real simple solution, of course, but that has not stopped some very principled people from trying to change the status quo. One man seemingly has practically made it his life's mission to upend the minor league system: Garrett Broshuis, a former Pirates minor-leaguer (and 5th round pick) who made a short-lived attempt at unionizing the minors when he was playing. After his playing career ended he enrolled at St. Louis University Law School (quite the impressive resume), and now he is representing three minor leaguers who allege they were paid less than the minimum wage overall in a season. Broshuis blogs at Life in the Minors and has written for Baseball America.
When we talk about the minor leagues, it's important to remember that a majority of the "professional" baseball players under the control of MLB are really no more "professionals" than "college student-athletes". There are, however, important differences between the situation college student-athletes find themselves in compared to minor league baseball players. If future professional football and basketball athletes could swap out their system for one modeled on the MLB plan of signing bonuses, salaries, and full-time focus on the sport, you would think they would do so. It is also relevant that Minor League Baseball is not quite the revenue generator that College Football and Basketball are for the NCAA. But that does not mean the current arrangement is fair or even tenable. It is almost as if organizations granted legal power to artificially compensate their labor for below market value will do so until someone tells them they can't anymore. There is no legal reason the minor leaguers cannot do something like what Kain Colter and Northwestern did themselves, and given the the broader trends it would not be difficult to envision such a figure emerging in the near future. Let's get it together, MLB.