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It’s that time of year again: time to recap! Barring some major news that will require I dust off the keyboard and send out A Take to y’all, the newsletter will be going dark until the new year. I’m excited to walk away for a couple of weeks and reset my brain, which usually leads to my writing down a bunch of half- and fully-formed ideas, which I can then get to work on producing for 2021.
Let’s take a look back at the year that was, through the lens of some of what I wrote about in this space. All told, 107 newsletters entries were published in 2020, which feels pretty good considering that there wasn’t even a Major League Baseball season until the end of July. Of course, the reason there was still so much to write about is because labor issues, multiple forms of racism, and a literal pandemic took center stage throughout the calendar year.
Things began a lot more hopeful than all of that suggests, though. Senne v. MLB, the lawsuit attempting to win back wages for former minor-league players, secured yet another victory when the Ninth Circuit Court rejected MLB’s appeal against Senne’s class action status. This would lead to another appeal, this one to the Supreme Court, but SCOTUS rejected MLB, too, which means Senne v. MLB is, after over half-a-decade of waiting, heading to trial court. I wrote about what that could mean in the future, or MiLB and MLB, for Baseball Prospectus, and it also later ended up at Defector for a pseudo-debut of mine there.
Later in January, I wrote about how the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement wasn’t just impressive for what it gained the players, but also for what they didn’t lose. The players’ behavior throughout that process — opting out of their CBA to start a new one, uniting together and pushing for what they absolutely needed to change for themselves and for the benefit of the league — was admirable, and worth other unions paying attention to and learning from, as well.
The Astros were fined just $5 million for the electronic sign stealing operation that won them a World Series championship, and it was a reminder that commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB work for the owners, not the other way around. And for Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about how, while Jeff Luhnow was fired by the Astros for his involvement with sign stealing, his influence in MLB wasn’t anywhere close to gone.
One of the best stories I read all year was published by Howard Bryant back in January, on the silence of athletes as the world burned, both literally and figuratively. I had some thoughts at the time, but I kept thinking about the piece throughout the year, too: on how the WWE’s Daniel Bryan is one of the few athletes who has been proactively political rather than just reactively so, and more recently, on how we began the year with Bryant’s story and seem to be ending it with the entire Celtics’ roster getting political in an op-ed about the racist us of facial recognition technology by the police.
I interviewed former MLB catcher John Buck about what Curt Flood meant to him, and how he became both educated and an educator on Flood during his playing career and time as a union representative.
MLB finally agreed to give MiLB players a pay raise (beginning with the 2021 season), but it’s severely lacking. Or, as I wrote at the time, 50 percent of shit is still shit. This public relations special would be far from the worst thing the league would do to MiLB players in 2020, of course.
In February, I wrote about the massive gap between MLB clubhouses and MiLB ones, courtesy the Mets’ renovated spring training complex that minor-league players weren’t allowed to use in-season even when they were the ones at the complex and MLB players were at Citi Field. A couple of days later, I explained why having minor-league baseball players, for the first time, in the latest iteration of video game MLB The Show was actually a problem, because they weren’t going to be paid for use of their likenesses, with an explanation as to why that was. Oh, and then a few weeks later, MLB forced MiLB players to leave spring training complexes because of the pandemic, without pay or hope, and I reported on that by speaking with a few anonymous players around the league.
It wasn’t just MiLB players left behind in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, though. MLB claimed it was “complicated” to pay stadium workers, who wouldn’t be able to find work elsewhere given the country was shutting down, even though it very much is not complicated for billionaires to help working class folks survive. I would also do some reporting on this, speaking with unions and workers impacted by these teams deciding to ignore their stadium and arena workers. COVID-19 shed light on inequality, in sports and beyond. And the United States government was dying to use sports as a distraction from their own mistakes, again.
Then there were the negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA on having a 2020 season. It seemed as if the two sides agreed on how salaries would work in a shortened season, until MLB pretended that wasn’t the case. The owners wanted MLB’s players to shoulder the financial burden of a season that would pull in less overall revenue, and it was clear they were gearing up to use a shorter 2020 as leverage to fix nothing players wanted in the upcoming CBA talks, too. They invoked the debt service rule as a concern, which was just some obfuscation of things that actually matter, too much of the media reacted as if this was all a Both Sides issue, and no real progress was made until the PA decided to put their foot down and call MLB’s bluff about there being no season.
When leagues began to react to the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, it rang hollow. Not only did it take forever for them to say anything at all, there was no substance to it. It was clearly a failure to commit to anything of substance, but they didn’t want to be caught saying nothing, for fear of a different kind of backlash than they had received in the past when BLM came up. Ian Desmond opted out of playing in the shortened 2020 season, and explained his decision as it related to his life as a biracial American who understood all too well what the Black Lives Matter movement was about, as well as the need for the racism within MLB to end.
The NFL’s Washington franchise got rid of the racist slur they were using for a team name, bringing on the era of the Washington Football Team. It’s the start in a longer series of necessary changes, but one that did not move the Atlanta Braves at all. The Cleveland Indians will be changing their name as early as the 2022 season, but they aren’t going to stop producing and selling Chief Wahoo merchandise, because trademark law. Just writing that sentence is making me angry about it again!
Sports weren’t taking resources away from the public during the pandemic, unless they were. Analysis later on would further prove that yes, sports and our deranged societal priorities absolutely were taking resources away from the public, including the nurses working on the frontlines of the pandemic. Oh, and now sports leagues and the powerful will get the vaccine for coronavirus first, too.
It’s six months later, and I’m still in awe that I had to write a headline saying, “Human rights are political” for a newsletter entry, but it happened for a reason! I also didn’t think I’d have to write “Please don’t rush to defend the Nazi salute coach” story potentially ever, but again, here we are.
While MLB’s minor leagues aren’t unionized, they’re looking like the exception to that rule these days. The NBA’s G-League successfully unionized, and the NBA recognized their formation, too. There is a major cultural difference between the two leagues based largely in the history of owner expectations, one MiLB players are going to need to overcome. Or else more stories like this one, about MLB replacing MiLB players with amateurs they don’t need to pay, will keep having to exist.
MLB, of course, isn’t the only entity treating their workers poorly. WWE took control of the money-earning social media accounts of their independent contractors, and fired the wrestler who didn’t fall in line. This is outright thievery that WWE is performing, and yet, it’s happening. They might have pushed too far, though, to the point that a very large and powerful union has WWE in their sights.
The Red Sox are looking to act even more like a business with a merger and move to becoming a publicly traded commodity, and that’s bad news for those of you who watch sports for the sports part of things.
To all of you who read, who contribute to the Patreon, or both, thank you. This newsletter began as an experiment after I was laid off, and it helps me out, both financially and in terms of organizing my thoughts, in keeping sharp. I hope you stick around for 2021, as well. I’ll certainly still be here.