Major League Baseball has operated outside the domain of federal antitrust laws since 1922. To give you an idea how different a time 1922 was from today, please note that the average ballpark beer is just over six bucks these days, while ballpark beers didn’t exist in 1922. Okay poor analogy, 1922 was in the middle of prohibition. It was a long time ago is what I’m saying, okay? The Cubs’ World Series drought was going on just its fourteenth year for Buddha’s sake*!
The exemption was essentially granted to the MLB because baseball was not considered a business that conducted commerce across state lines and so was not in violation of antitrust laws. A major argument posed by plaintiffs was that clubs paying for travel and related expenses to other cities in different states was enough to be considered a violation since it is interstate commerce and coordination. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and here we are, despite multiple attempts to revisit this exemption, it still stands.
Twice this decision was reaffirmed, once in 1953 and again in 1972. Both predominately ruled on the idea that baseball (or “base ball” as the 1920’s courts put it) is only a game and never intended to be covered under antitrust laws. In the 1953 case, it was noted “Congress had no intention of including the business of baseball within the scope of the federal antitrust laws…”. In 1972, the court at least acknowledged the exemption as an “aberration” that was not enjoyed by any of the other major sports leagues. In fact, the court went so far as to say:
“The longstanding exemption of professional baseball from the antitrust laws, Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U. S. 200 (1922); Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., 346 U. S. 356 (1953), is an established aberration, in the light of the Court’s holding that other interstate professional sports are not similarly exempt, but one in which Congress has acquiesced, and that is entitled to the benefit of stare decisis. Removal of the resultant inconsistency at this late date is a matter for legislative, not judicial, resolution.”
“Longstanding exemption…established aberration…stare decisis…”, all of which is quite literally saying that the court agrees that this exemption looks funny and is an obvious “inconsistency”, but at the same time, there is a precedent that has been set and Congress isn’t motivated enough to bother changing it.
Acquiescence is still the model used today to defend the exemption or as justification for the status quo. Indeed, just this week we saw it rear its head again when the lawsuit brought by a few minor league players who alleged that the MLB was and continues to violate minimum wage laws by underpaying minor leaguers across multiple levels was handily dismissed. The court stated that:
“Because baseball’s historic antitrust exemption bars any antitrust claims arising from Plaintiffs’ employment as minor league baseball players, the Court finds that any amendment of Plaintiffs’ Complaint would be futile.”
In other words, cool story bro, but wrong venue and we can’t help you. Again the court is seemingly behind the idea that the exemption is obsolete and ridiculous at best, and a violation of the law at worst.
So again, here we are. The exemption continues to stand tall through decades of challenges, only slightly being rattled a few times. To say that baseball is not constantly involved in interstate commerce in 2015 is laughable. The teams are more linked than ever these days; by way of specific marketing strategies, collaborations, joint celebrations and the list goes on. Teams occasionally will pay all or a portion of players’ salaries who work for other teams in other states, for Buddha’s sake!** There are simply no longer any solid arguments in favor of baseball being a loosely held group of individual clubs that operate in their respective locales. There are simply no longer any solid arguments in favor of baseball being just a game as opposed to a bona fide business. Most of all, there is and probably never should have been, reasoning based upon maintaining the status quo simply due to precedence.
Whether or not you agree that minor leaguers should be paid more than the federal or state minimum wages or receive overtime is beside the point. The fact that they cannot even argue their case is wrong. The antitrust exemption has got to go and that means Congress (yeah, I know, THAT Congress) needs to get off their collective asses.
*The check is in the mail, Old Gator.
**Make that two checks, O.G.