Let’s talk about antitrust exemptions

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Do you know anything about how the modern incarnation of the National Basketball Association was formed*? There was an NBA union before the NBA as we know it existed, and the actions of that union helped form the much larger, much more stable and lucrative NBA of today.

*I promise, this is related to baseball, just give me a minute.

The NBA’s union, the National Basketball Players Association, much like the Major League Baseball Players Association, had to contend with a reserve clause that made players the property of the teams that drafted them, traded for them, or signed them once they were discarded by whichever team had perpetual rights to them. There were some other options out there for NBA players unhappy with this environment, like the American Basketball Association, but the ABA was founded with the idea of eventually merging with the NBA, just like the American Football League had done with the National Football League. The NBA was happy to entertain the idea of a merger, since they would be absorbing their competition while also removing alternatives for players who didn’t want to deal with the NBA’s labor situation.

Oscar Robertson, then-president of the NBPA, filed a suit against the NBA and ABA merger in 1970, on antitrust grounds. It took six years for the suit to finally be settled, with the NBA and ABA merging at that time — though, at that point, it was more of an expansion of the NBA that brought in the San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers, and the players from the two folded ABA clubs were placed in an NBA dispersal draft as well.

It might sound like settling was a loss since the merger happened, but the players got something in return: free agency, and the end of the reserve clause. The style of the NBA’s play changed with the merger, players had more choice in their movement, and the league became much more like the one we know today. The players did not like their situation, and were able to leverage their union’s power to better it, and keep the NBA from doing whatever it felt like — and keep them from getting the antitrust exemption they craved, as well.

This brings us to MLB, where major free agents like Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel remain available even though we’re weeks into the regular season, where players are signing team-friendly extensions rather than betting on themselves, because there is little upside in doing otherwise given the current dessicated nature of free agency. MLB has an antitrust exemption, and has had it for nearly a century now. What it means today is different from what it meant when it was first granted, but the antitrust exemption helps ensure that MLB runs pro baseball in America: it would be very difficult for competition to rise up against them, which means players are basically stuck in MLB, unlike pro basketball players of the 1960s and 1970s.

And it’s not just players, either. Scouts claimed their wages were being suppressed and attempted to challenge the antitrust exemption to no avail. Front offices don’t have to pay the best wages or respect their workers’ time or conditions, because there are just 30 teams out there and limited jobs to fill. Like with minor-league players trying to live the dream of playing pro baseball being paid poverty-level wages, someone out there will be willing to be underpaid and exploited in a front office, too. With no external pressure to pay more or allow workers to work less, that won’t change.

MLB’s merger between the National League and American League came back in 1903, 65 years before the MLBPA forced collective bargaining, and 73 years before the NBA and ABA merged. They had their antitrust exemption in place well before things like television rights could be leveraged against television networks thinking of supporting competing leagues. And that’s one way MLB’s antitrust exemption can work in the league’s favor today: it’s perfectly fine for them to throw their weight around and do whatever they can to keep their competition underfoot, because they have the exemption that allows them to stand alone. There isn’t likely to be an ABA-esque league rising up, heavily influencing the future of MLB, because MLB has nothing to fear from any such competitor, legally speaking.

So, this is how we end up with the independent Atlantic League as MLB’s science experiment for potential rule changes, and the Atlantic League being happy to acquiesce: being recognized as useful in the greater baseball world is about all they can hope for. It’s how all of Minor League Baseball eventually fell under MLB’s umbrella, becoming a feeder system for them even before it was an official, ownership-based arrangement like it is today. It’s also why it’s so easy for MLB to manipulate cities into paying for stadiums and cutting them tax breaks: there are only 30 teams and one league for major cities to fight over, and they will do just that. This extends to MLB’s anti-fan practices, too, because again, where else are they going to turn to if they want baseball in their lives? Maybe those attitudes are short-sighted ones from MLB and its owners, but most of today’s owners will be even richer after selling their team or plain old dead by the time that’s a problem to confront head on, so why should they care?

And the strength that’s at least in part derived from being the only game in town is also what allows MLB to spread their influence overseas, draining any potential international competitors of their greatest talents before they can ever build anything larger with them — this, in turn, makes it more difficult for a disaffected MLB player to head to a league in another country to play ball instead, because none of them can compete with MLB’s wages, even if MLB is doing its best to withhold as much money from as many players as it can.

The antitrust exemption has and will continue to have major consequences, and it’s to the detriment of MLB’s own players and fans that this is the case. Without external pressure, it becomes that much more difficult for professional baseball players to control their own destinies, and you’re seeing some of the fallout from that today while teams mess around with inferior options because they don’t feel like paying better ones.

  • Triple-A leagues are using the same baseball as MLB this year, which is causing an offensive explosion that makes that level unrecognizable from Double-A. This isn’t a huge surprise, given MLB’s ball is inconsistent, and possibly “juiced” again this year given the high-level of April offense.

  • Here’s where my mind was the last time a juiced/slick ball was in the news.

  • Looking through these free agent rankings for the next few classes is not helping my mood. How many of those guys do we think will even make it to free agency, weakening the classes and concept further?

  • Ginny Searle tried to see what connective tissue exists among the players impacted (or not impacted) by service time manipulation this year.

  • The Yankees aren’t using Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” anymore, because apparently, Kate Smith recorded a lot of racist shit!

  • Here’s a Sporting News feature on MLB team translators and their role in today’s game.

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