Sports and Society: Locked out

Nobody thinks of an American labor union and pictures multimillionaires fighting against a multibillion-dollar corporation. Nor does anyone usually assume that the union holds the upper hand in negotiations. Major League Baseball’s latest dramatic implosion, however, checks both boxes.

The MLB recently announced that the league would go into a lockout for the first time after 26 years of uneasy peace between the league owners and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA). This comes as a result of the expiration of the last deal struck between the two parties over everything from how long the season will last to free agency rules; no new deal was negotiated. For a game that is the great American pastime in name only, this debacle is plainly embarrassing. 

This comes in a period of existential crisis for professional baseball. Viewership is dwindling, nobody can hit and the league and players are so out of sync that now nobody is allowed to show up for work. 

All league and team operations have been completely frozen. Players cannot use team facilities, teams cannot interact with their players and any innovations the MLB was working on to make their sport not fundamentally boring to watch will have to wait. 

Even as national union membership craters, the MLB lockout shows that the field of play can still be a stronghold for organized labor. It’s easy to dismiss these disputes as trivial or silly when it seems like everyone involved is a multimillionaire, but, like all labor battles, it’s nowhere near such simplicity. 

The lockout is everyone’s fault, but the activities of the league’s upper office and owners show backwards priorities geared more towards ensuring their bottom line  than fixing the countless problems steering the league into irrelevancy on the national stage. 

The union they are up against may tout larger paychecks than your average industrial worker, but the principles of union relations are exactly the same. Unions work to ensure that the revenues generated by the work of their members are not unfairly pocketed or misused by corporate overlords. The MLBPA’s goals are fundamentally the same. 

Yet it is easy to accuse both sides, MLBPA included, of being tone-deaf to the harsh realities many American workers face today. For millions, it’s not about when and how they will sign their next $3 million contract but when and how they’ll put dinner on the table. While that is all true in principle, the labor questions on the scale of professional sports must be treated the same in order to avoid dangerous precedents regarding one of the most public unions in the world. Much like millions of others, the members of the MLBPA are, in essence, workers.

MLB revenues are generated almost entirely by their players’ likenesses and  performances on the field. Contrary to a company like Amazon, a company also embroiled in seemingly constant labor controversy, the MLB’s employees are massive international celebrities who could mobilize massive public outcry with a single interview or tweet. This makes them uniquely powerful and insulated against many iterations of league aggression. 

Yet, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred seems insistent on blaming the lockout on the MLBPA’s refusal to negotiate on key issues. Manfred detailed these complaints in a recent letter patronizingly addressed “to our fans,” a drastically misleading position if you read between the lines.

Quite simply: The players make the league its money. The benefits of unions to ensure the security of workers certainly goes beyond baseball, but the progressive principles that drive them must exist everywhere if they are to survive, no matter how much the workers make.