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Despite MLB Lockout, Players Across Sports Are Gaining More Power

Seats will stay empty, for now.
Seats will stay empty, for now. (Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The larger world might be spinning out of control, but those who turn for distraction to sports should take note of a trend: The players are winning. 

Not in games against each other; in contests against the owners and regulators of sport. Everywhere we look, the players are grabbing a larger share of the value they create.

For instance, the National Football League announced that its annual “combine” — where college players showcase their talents to pro scouts — would be held in an anti-Covid bubble, with neither agents nor personal trainers allowed inside. When the stars threatened a boycott, the NFL backed down.

Or consider this month’s $22 million settlement of the equal pay dispute between the United States Soccer Federation and the women’s national team — after years of the federation’s denials that anything was amiss.

Or the fact that after being slapped down by a unanimous Supreme Court last year, the NCAA revoked its absurd rules limiting the ability of the student athletes who make millions of dollars for member schools to earn money from licensing their own names, images and likenesses. 

And then there’s Major League Baseball, where, sadly, the team owners are all broke.

Wait, what?

That’s the implication of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent lament that the stock market is a better investment than a professional baseball team. If he’s right, the owners who keep paying record prices for multi-billion dollar franchises are less clever than their fortunes suggest. Fortunately, he’s wrong — as in really, really wrong — and the ridicule he’s earned signals the weakness of management’s position in baseball’s current labor stoppage.

As every fan knows, the teams locked out the players, and negotiations have foundered. With the two sides having failed to reach a deal by management’s deadline, Major League Baseball seems poised to begin cancelling regular-season games. The owners say the players won’t be paid for any cancellations; the players say that unless those wages are made up, the owners should abandon their hopes for enhancing revenue by expanding the playoffs.

Here again the players still have the advantage; because baseball, too, has changed.

Once upon a time, even the greatest players, to make ends meet, had to take full-time jobs once the season ended. Roy Campanella ran a Harlem liquor store. Maury Wills had a laundry business. And when the nonpareil Willie Mays hung up his cleats for the last time, the most lucrative work he could find was as a greeter at an Atlantic City casino. (The lords of baseball responded by banning Mays — who had taken a small, post-retirement role with the Mets — from their sport indefinitely.(1))

How poorly paid were players in comparison with their celebrity? A popular tale holds that around 1930, when the estimable George Herman Ruth’s salary hit $80,000, reporters asked why he thought he deserved more than President Herbert Hoover. Quipped the Babe: “I had a better year than he did.”

Although often repeated, the story is probably apocryphal. But the numbers are still useful. At the time of the supposed contretemps, the president’s annual salary was $75,000. The Babe’s was $80,000. Put otherwise, Ruth earned 106.67% of the salary of the President of the United States. As of this writing, the highest paid player on an annual basis is Max Scherzer of the New York Mets, at $43,333,333 per season. President Joe Biden earns $400,000 a year. You do the math.(2)

Think the president is the wrong comparison? Fair enough. In the 1930s, the average individual income was $1,368; in 1930 alone, Ruth earned a bit more than 58 times that amount.(3) Scherzer earns about 980 times today’s median individual U.S. income of $44,225. And one needn’t be a star to do well. In 2021, the median MLB salary was $1.1 million; the average was $4.17 million.

Modern players aren’t bigger celebrities. I doubt that any of today’s major leaguers are as famous around the world as Willie Mays was in his heyday. Instead, what we’ve seen is the erosion of the many advantages, legal and political, that for so long allowed baseball owners to exploit their employees’ labor.

Still, bits of advantage linger. That’s why, despite gaudy numbers, average player salaries were dropping even before the pandemic. They’re up over the past decade, but haven’t climbed nearly as fast as salaries in the NFL and the NBA. The players want to change that.

All of which brings us back to the negotiations. At the heart of the dispute lie a number of issues holding the potential to drive salaries even higher. Among other things, players want wider access to salary arbitration and a softening of the “luxury tax” that penalizes teams with high payrolls; owners want an expanded postseason, and a stricter luxury tax. Whatever the space for compromise, the owners can’t seriously expect that they’ll wind up with a higher proportion of the sport’s eleven-figure revenue than they’re getting now.

Don’t get me wrong. At a time when so many are suffering, I’m not suggesting sympathy for athletes who might get paid a few million less than they’d like. But it’s harder to root for the owners, many of whose teams play in gleaming tax-financed stadiums, despite decades of studies telling us that publicly financed ballparks are a dreadful investment.(4)

As I said: The players are winning.

More From Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Baseball Lockout Shows What’s Wrong With a Superstar Economy: Allison Schrager 

Baseball Players Are Not Overpaid: Stephen L. Carter

Unions Are on the Rise, But So Are the Robots: Brooke Sutherland

(1) The ban on Mays was issued by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Mays was prohibited from taking any role with a team (coaching, for instance, or showing up for an old-timers’ day). He surrendered the role he’d taken with the Mets, and the ban remained in place for five years, until a newly appointed commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, rescinded it.

(2) The highest paid player in the National Football League is Patrick Mahomes at $45 million.The median NFL salary is $860,000.In the National Basketball Association, it’s Steph Curry at $45,780,966.The median is $3.83 million; the average is $7.9 million.

(3) The 1930 census did not include comprehensive income reports.In 1940, the federal government reported this figure as the average during the 1930s.

(4) Minor league stadiums might be better public investments.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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