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Lawsuit by Minor League players, claim they earn less than minimum wage

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Claiming they were exploited by Major League Baseball and earning wages below the poverty line, three former minor league players file a lawsuit for back pay. I interview several current and former players for their take on the situation.

Doug Pensinger

Three former minor league players filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball on February 7th, claiming their organizations violated the Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act and they were paid less than minimum wage while under contract for their teams. If the lawsuit were allowed to go forward, it could be expanded into a class action suit involving current and former players which would completely alter the financial landscape of the minor leagues. The lawsuit was filed by former prospects: Aaron Senne of the Miami Marlins, Oliver Odle of the San Francisco Giants and Michael Liberto of the Kansas City Royals.

"You are expected to fuel your body like a big leaguer yet you can only afford lower income foods." -Minor League player speaking anonymously

An article in Sports Illustrated outlined the basic arguments of the players:

The three players suing baseball also stress that minor league salaries have effectively declined in recent decades. According to the complaint, while big league salaries have risen by more than 2,000 percent since 1976, minor league salaries have increased by just 75 percent during that time. When taking into account inflation, minor leaguers actually earn less than they did in 1976.

To advance their legal argument, the three players describe the life of a typical minor leaguer as one of constant "exploitation." They contend the exploitation begins at the start of a player's career, where teams have allegedly agreed to not negotiate salaries or inform players of salary data. Players then earn meager wages while purportedly working between 60 and 70 hours per week. This range of work includes playing in six or seven games a week and doing conditioning and other work to keep their skills and bodies sharp. Players are also unpaid for participating in the instructional league and extended spring training. The players believe that they, and other current and former minor leaguers, are owed back wages for uncompensated and under-compensated labor.

I spoke to several current and former minor league players about the lawsuit and a few, fearing retaliation from their team, were willing to talk under conditions of anonymity, while others understandably wanted nothing to do with the topic.

One former player shared the type of hours hours they were expected to work in an average day:

"Looking at it from an hourly perspective, this claim is above and beyond accurate.  We would sometimes have to be at the field around 12 pm and wouldn't be leaving the field until 11 pm. Granted there is some downtime involved between BP and other activities, but it is not as if you could leave the field for anything.  If you were to add in the bus rides and travel, it would only make it worse. You get one day off every two weeks so the hours add up."

A current player told me how the money gets better as they moved up through the organization and that in AA and AAA they were probably closer to minimum wage. Prior to that, their pay was well below the federal minimum. One point he brought up was how hard it was in the off-season to follow the team's directions for workouts and getting in time for lifting, hitting and throwing drills while working a normal job to cover their bills for the rest of the year. Some guys were fortunate enough to get endorsement deals to help out, but they are few and far between.

Some players receive significant signing bonuses, which covers their expenses over the next five years or more. However, other players aren't as fortunate on draft day and are constantly scrimping to get by. In this case, they often shack up with teammates who are better off, living on the floors and couches of the apartments of teammates who have better resources.

One player shared with me the problems of being an athlete in these conditions and trying to eat right:

"As for other players who were less fortunate on draft day, I know it was a constant struggle.  You are expected to fuel your body like a big leaguer yet you can only afford lower income foods."

If a player has trouble making bills, or paying rent during the season there are only a few options available to him. While one player praised his organization saying they would help out with financial needs:

"If you were to approach the team with a financial concern, the team will always help you out. Whether you can't pay dues, rent, or afford food, the team will do something to help that individual out."

Another prospect wasn't so fortunate, saying that if a player ran into financial trouble, the only real option was to:

"Quit and get a job."

Minimum wage was enacted in 1938 to protect the exploitation of American workers. There are of course philosophical arguments on both sides about effectiveness and where the rate should be set at. In the meantime it's a law which helps approximately 2.9% of America's workers according to James Sherk, a Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics.

The lawsuit brings up an interesting perspective on the pursuit of America's pastime by young ballplayers. While the incentive to make millions is driving those young men to endure hard times in hopes that the short-term hardships will turn into a lucrative career, the majority of these players will walk away from the game after spending five years or more in poverty.

So the lawsuit bears a question; are minor league players reimbursed fairly and does playing a sport in pursuit of millions of dollars fall under the same jurisdiction as laws which regulates the fast-food and other industries? I look forward to your feedback in the comments below.