MLB Considers Spring Training Unpaid Internship for Minor Leaguers

Way back at the start of my blogging days, I still had dreams of writing for a bigger outlet that covered more than just the Cubs. One particular was new and edgy, featuring writers who displayed the kind of acerbic wit and flawless deadpan I both enjoyed and aspired to. So I applied and was accepted, which was cool until I started to ask about pay.

I was told that my first pieces would not have a byline but rather would be anonymous until I proved myself. Once I worked up to having an actual byline, I could start earning a little bit. Experience, I was told, is the true currency of sports blogging anyway. Needless to say, I never got paid and I even call from the owner when I had the audacity to ask some fellow writers whether they had been compensated.

My favorite part was when they sat on a Kris Bryant piece I’d written for so long that I eventually shopped it elsewhere, only to be tsk-tsked because the first site really had wanted to run it. For free, no doubt. You can still find two of the columns out there under the Sports Illustrated banner if you’re so inclined. As for that KB article, I think I got paid $5 by a site I no longer remember the name of.

Ed. note: I’m reasonably sure the best lede I’ve ever written came from this piece about Brandon Marshall

While I mainly shared all of that because I’m petty enough to be an honorary member of the Heartbreakers, this general concept is one that persists across more industries than just sportswriting. Unpaid internships aren’t just a common practice in the business world, either, as Major League Baseball has long viewed spring training as more or less a rite of passage — or just indentured servitude — for minor leaguers.

Unlike most such traditions, however, these otherwise-professional athletes are expected to train for free year after year as long as they’re part of the farm system. The league has even gone so far as to adamantly defend its position as it made arguments for summary judgment Friday in advance of a class-action lawsuit scheduled for June 1.

“It is the players that obtain the greater benefit from the training opportunities that they are afforded than the clubs, who actually just incur the cost of having to provide that training,” said a lawyer representing MLB in federal court. “During the training season, the players are not employees, and would not be subject to either the Fair Labor Standards Act or any state minimum wage act.”

As Evan Drellich laid out for The Athletic, Elise Bloom of Proskauer Rose was following up on a previous argument from MLB that the value players receive for their training in camp amounts to $2,200 per week. This is based on what youth and amateur players would otherwise have to pay for such instruction, though it’s completely asinine to apply the hourly cost of lessons or even a summer camp to a month of spring training.

Even though it’s not surprising at all to see the league defending an otherwise indefensible position, it says a lot about how owners and MLB execs view their labor force. A league that celebrates Jackie Robinson by having players wear his number once a year has a woeful lack of diversity in leadership positions, which stems from ownership.

“Most [owners] view themselves as politically neutral,” ESPN’s Howard Bryant told Sheryl Ring of Beyond the Box Score last January. “White men especially are afforded the assumption of neutrality. They’re going after a very specific type of person who looks like them and has a very similar path as they do.

“That path is one that will lend itself towards following orders more than giving them. Because front offices are so meddling now, they want so much control, today’s executives want people who aren’t going to challenge them. People who are going to do what they’re told.”

Another facet of that hiring structure, and one more germane to the topic at hand, is that the upper ranks of MLB are largely populated by individuals who view unpaid internships as standard practice. Many got their start in either business or baseball working for little other than experience, so they don’t see a problem with others doing the same.

But what goes unmentioned is that almost all of them were able to do so because they were already either wealthy or were working another job at the same time. You’ve got this collection of blue-bloods and silver spoons who don’t understand much about how the other 99% looks at green. It’s like the idea of game recognize game, except not at all in a good way.

To take nothing away from someone who’s working their way up through a corporate law firm by day and then burning the midnight oil to calculate the differences in seam-shifted wake between their team’s free agent targets, baseball players don’t have that same luxury. To be more specific, minor league players don’t make much money in the first place and can’t simply work a part-time job while training in Arizona or Florida.

Not only that, but these aren’t freelancers who can choose to ply their trade for whichever employer is offering the best benefits. They don’t have a choice of whether and where to show up for spring training, so it’s not as though building their résumé is a viable option. The league obviously knows this, but I’m not entirely sure its position is one of pure financial gain.

When you stop and think about it, the pittance it takes to pay minor leaguers during spring training would almost certainly be made up for by better morale and performance. That goes for increasing wages through the regular season as well, since better housing and nutrition promote improved health and mental wellness. Now you’re talking about a stronger development pipeline and more young players coming up and making a league-minimum salary, which owners love.

It’s not as simple as boiling it all down to ignorance and tradition, but I truly believe that’s a huge part of why MLB is sticking to its guns on this topic. All other logic, not to mention the pure human decency wealth seems to leech from its holders, says that treating young athletes better will yield better results on the field and possibly even the bottom line.

Make me the next commissioner.

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