Media, please stop falling into the traps MLB sets for you

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MLB’s owners began their quarterly meetings in Orlando on Tuesday, and, given the current labor battle, much of what was said to preview said meeting had to do with the current staredown between the league and the players. Bob Nightengale tweeted this, but he was far from alone in the sentiment contained within:

The owners have their quarterly #MLB meetings beginning today in the Orlando area. Rob Manfred is scheduled to speak Thursday. #MLBPA executives are traveling to Florida and Arizona to meet with players. It leaves about 2 weeks to reach agreement to avoid delaying regular season.

As has been pointed out here on many occasions, words and framing matter. Here, Nightengale says “it leaves about 2 weeks to reach agreement to avoid delaying the season,” which implies that the only path to the 2022 season beginning on time is for the owners and the players to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. Again, he’s far from alone on this: when the offer of bringing in a federal mediator was declined by the Players Association, essentially everyone in baseball media hopped on Twitter to say, intentionally or not, that it was The Players’ Doing that the start of the regular season was now in jeopardy. As Baseball Prospectus’ Shawn Brody tweeted, the rejection of the mediator was “a perfect opportunity for members of legacy media to discuss the idea that MLB is not bargaining in good faith. It’s a perfect opportunity to explain why the existing problem falls squarely on MLB and their bargaining team.” That is not what we got. What we did get was people who should know better, like the Associated Press’ Ronald Blum, talking about how the rejection of the mediator raised concerns about Opening Day starting on time, and without pointing the finger for this issue where it belonged: at the owners.

The owners instituted this lockout. They can lift it at any time. The lockout is not a necessity in order to get a new deal. In fact, if the regular season begins without a new deal in place, the league and players would simply operate under the previous collective bargaining agreement until there was a new agreement to replace it. Yes, the players could theoretically strike at some point during 2022, but the owners have it within their power to keep that from happening, too: they simply need to show up to the table and take bargaining seriously, and not create a situation where the players can declare that negotiations are at an impasse, and a strike is the only way to move things along once more.

It’s all very annoying, considering that none of this is rocket science: it should be pretty common sense. The owners refused to bargain further with the players, and when they were bargaining, well, we can probably put a lot of those core economics bargaining moments in sarcastic air quotes. They reached out to a federal mediator in what was clearly a public relations ploy, and it wasn’t just your local crackpot like me saying so. The Athletic’s Evan Drellich framed it as a potential win-win of PR for the league, and labor lawyer Eugene Freedman almost immediately after the mediation offer was even announced said that it could possibly be a play to make the players look bad when they reject the nonsensical offer. And yet, we’ve got Blum writing about this as if it was all on the players to make it happen, and too many legacy media types not taking the opportunity to call MLB out on how full-of-shit their statement on the rejection was. Which lets MLB get away with their awful framing, and the cycle continues.

We just went through all of this not all that long ago, too. Why would you ever think MLB is operating in good faith? Why would you ever give them the benefit of the doubt that, this time, they might actually be serious and sincere? In mid-June of 2020, amid all of the negotiating over the pandemic-shortened season, I wrote a piece for Baseball Prospectus titled, “When it Comes to MLB, ‘Good Faith’ is a Trap.”

The league responded to the possibility of a season without fans by leaking to the media again and again anything they could think of that would make the players look greedy. First, they scored headlines with the much ballyhooed 50/50 revenue-sharing proposal, approved by the league but never presented to the players because they knew it was dead on departure, much less arrival. Then there was the lying to reporters and the public about the nature of the negotiations despite internal documents confirming that the league knows for a fact the union has been within their bargaining rights, legally, to stand behind player compensation as defined by the March agreement. Headlines, once more. The league also refused to reasonably respond to the union’s requests to open up the books and prove that a season without fans, with players earning “full” prorated salaries, would bring financial devastation upon the league. When they did finally answer at all, the documents on television contracts and the like “were so heavily redacted as to be essentially meaningless.” How is any kind of “good faith” discussion or compromise or negotiation possible with a negotiating partner like this one?

That’s not a trick question, necessarily, but it should be a revelatory one: Good-faith negotiations are not possible with an entity such as MLB. The league has spent the pandemic attempting to rally the media and public against the players, knowing full well that the players were legally in the right the entire time. It’s used the pandemic as a cover for pushing its preexisting agenda (and, regrettably, found a willing partner in that arena in the PA when it came to amateur players). It has “negotiated” by repackaging the same idea the union hated from the outset again and again with no material changes, only cosmetic ones, then claimed it was the PA that was being unreasonable and stubborn. Major League Baseball has looked so terrible during all of this, that it’s fair to wonder if its goal is to host a 2020 season, or use the pandemic as an excuse to drain the players’ bank accounts for a year before any potential collective-bargaining-related lockout in 2022 can even begin.

Despite all of this, people keep falling into and for those traps, assigning blame to the players for their being locked out in the first place. Not only do we have “if only the players had accepted a mediator, everything would be fine now” framing happening, but we’ve also got the New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt, who isn’t even on the MLB beat anymore, jumping in to say that, “The owners are increasingly convinced Tony Clark and Bruce Meyer have had their power neutered and that owners are actually negotiating against the hidden hand of the game’s top agent Scott Boras” without doing any kind of follow-up reporting or contradiction of that or presenting any evidence that it could be true. Just a straight-up parroting of what the owners currently believe.

I just… what the hell, man. I’m sure Scott Boras has some influence with the MLBPA, but why wouldn’t he? He’s an incredibly successful agent who understands the importance of waiting for the right deal with the best long-term implications instead of rushing right in to take hold of whatever short-term benefits exist. As I wrote back in 2020 when Rick Shapiro, an MLBPA attorney who was fired by the union for no longer being a fit for a battle with the league and Boras’ influence was blamed for it:

Boras has plenty of awful ideas, don’t get me wrong: solutions aren’t really his thing. Identifying problems and loopholes that need closing, though, is something Boras is well-suited for, and if he’s got the ear of players on the executive board (clients Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer, and James Paxton) as well as the executive director of the MLBPA, well, maybe some good will come of it.

Just because he’s got the ear of some folks in the union doesn’t mean they are going with his plans, or that he’s in control of anything. And we’re also not that far removed from “new lead negotiator Bruce Meyer is a problem!” takes from MLB, either, so this is kind of just throwing everything they can at the wall to see which discrediting sticks. Boras is a point of contention for plenty out there, and MLB hopes that there is some unified a disgust at the mere mention of his name from people who still think ticket prices are determined by player salaries and not whatever MLB can get away with charging for them.

Stop giving MLB the benefit of the doubt. Stop refusing to challenge obvious untruths and framing that was put together by a team for the sole purpose of spinning things that are clearly their own doing and fault. Stop making what is not a both sides issue at all one that involves both sides: the players were locked out, and they submitted the last proposal. They cannot lift the lockout — only the owners who imposed it can do that. And they can do so and keep on negotiating throughout the 2022 season until a new deal is reached, too. Just because they won’t doesn’t mean the onus is on the players — who have been incredibly reasonable to this point — to give in to every ridiculous demand MLB throws their way just to move things along.

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