Senators ask MLB why antitrust exemption needed in minors

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FILE - Quad Cities River Bandits players warm up before a Class-A Midwest League baseball game against the Cedar Rapids Kernels in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Monday, May 13, 2019. Leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee have asked baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred to explain the impact of potential legislation stripping the sports antitrust exemption from covering the sports relationship with minor league players. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

LOS ANGELES – Leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee have asked baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred to explain the impact of potential legislation stripping the sport’s antitrust exemption from covering the sport’s relationship with minor league players.

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee, and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is the ranking minority member, sent the letter Monday and asked Manfred to respond by July 26 to a series of questions that could be a prelude to proposed legislation further limiting an exemption created by a 1922 Supreme Court decision.

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“Your answers will help inform the Senate Judiciary Committee’s analysis of the necessity of this century-old exemption,” said the letter, also signed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah.

The letter is the next step after a similar request for information the four senators sent last month to an advocacy group for minor leaguers. The executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Minor Leaguers has recommended Congress enact legislation nullifying the application of the exemption to minor leaguers.

“We look forward to providing detailed information to the committee regarding baseball’s limited antitrust exemption and how it has provided franchise location stability at the major league level, maximized the availability of minor-league baseball for fans and quality employment opportunities for aspiring major leaguers,” the league said in a statement.

Senators asked about the potential impact of repealing 2018 legislation exempting minor league players from federal minimum wage and overtime laws — the Save America’s Pastime Act — and whether the antitrust exemption played a role in MLB’s decision in 2020 to cut minor league affiliations from a minimum of 160 to 120. They also asked whether MLB would commit to maintaining 120 affiliates when current 10-year player development license agreements expire after the 2030 season.

Advocates for Minor Leaguers said in a statement that it believes the exemption “has had dire consequences for minor league baseball players and fans. ”

Major league players on 40-man rosters, including those on option to the minors, are represented by the Major League Baseball Players Association. More than 90% of the several thousand players in the minors are not unionized.

In a proposed lawsuit settlement filed Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, MLB agreed to pay minor leaguers $185 million to settle alleged violations of minimum wage laws. An early estimate is that perhaps 23,000 players could share the money with an average payment of $5,000 to $5,500, and the settlement says $55.5 million will go the players’ lawyers.

Senators asked for MLB’s opinion on how its structure compares with those of the NFL, NBA and NHL, and what justifies maintaining the exemption for baseball. In the past, baseball officials have stressed the exemption allows them to prohibit teams from changing cities without MLB approval.

Senators inquired about the exemption’s impact on work stoppages — which is not at all since the Curt Flood Act of 1998 applied antitrust laws to MLB affecting the employment of major league players at the major league level.

“Please discuss the impact, if any, of the antitrust exemption on the negotiation of minor league players’ length of contract, wages, housing, or other working conditions,” they wrote. “What effect would removing the antitrust exemption have on minor league player working conditions and wages? If a more tailored approach, like extending the Curt Flood Act to cover minor league players and operations, was taken, what would be the impact? Please describe any provision of the CFA that should or should not cover minor league players and why.”

They asked about MLB’s view of the impact on minor league players of the 1922 Supreme Court decision involving the Federal League that created the exemption, of last year’s Supreme Court decision ruling the NCAA can’t limit education-related benefits that colleges can offer sports stars (NCAA v. Alston) and the Justice Department’s statement of interest in a pending lawsuit filed by four minor league teams urging that “lower courts should limit the ‘baseball exemption’ to conduct that is central to the business of offering professional baseball games to the public.”

In addition, they asked about the exemption’s impact on corruption in the international amateur signing market


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