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Senators want answers from MLB commissioner as worker rights fight continues

The controversy surrounding MLB's treatment of minor league players is yet another sign of the workers' rights renaissance taking place across sports.


Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, is in some hot water with the U.S. Senate regarding the league’s compensation for minor league players. 

On Monday, the Associated Press reported a group of senators has given Manfred until Friday — a three-day extension from his original Tuesday deadline — to respond to questions about MLB’s antitrust exemption. 

The Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that baseball leagues were exempted from antitrust law banning monopolies and corporate collusion, because the games the leagues were playing were not considered interstate commerce. That exemption has remained in place for a century, but it’s been scrutinized lately as minor league players have gone public with allegations of poor pay and untenable living accommodations while they’re on the road. 

Manfred denied the allegations of poor pay right before last week’s MLB All-Star Game, which prompted members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to send him questions asking how the league would be impacted if lawmakers were to rescind the antitrust exemption. 

The inquiry is just the most recent labor issue roiling the league, months after MLB players and team owners ended a lockout and agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement

But more broadly speaking, we’re seeing a trend of labor challenging their employers across several major U.S. sports leagues — and in some cases, state and federal officials are interested in the labor fights, as well. 

Take the NFL, for example. House Democrats have opened an investigation into Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder over allegations he and others engaged in abuse and sexual harassment. Several state attorneys general have opened an investigation into the NFL’s alleged pattern of harassment and misconduct toward women working in league offices. And Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., has called for a House hearing on systemic racism in the league after multiple Black coaches alleged discrimination. (Snyder and the NFL have denied the allegations against them.)

College athletics are in the midst of a sea change regarding labor rights, as players and schools seek to capitalize on new rules allowing athletes to make money off their names, images and likenesses through endorsements, social media campaigns and more. The House held a hearing last year on what federal guidelines for name, image and likeness policies would look like and how to make sure athletes aren’t exploited. 

And the NBA has largely avoided congressional scrutiny in its labor disputes, but that doesn’t mean issues don’t exist. As players and team owners in that league prepare to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, many in the sports world have theorized that team owners will use the next agreement to take power from star players who have unique stature to dictate their own play schedules

It’s noteworthy that all of these conversations come at a time when workers across the U.S. are flexing their power in a variety of ways. The work shortage in some industries is a result of would-be workers holding out for jobs with the pay and accommodations they demand. And we’ve seen newly formed labor unions winning hard-fought victories against their corporate overlords. 

In team sports, our favorite stars’ high profile can obscure the fact that they’re in a worker-employee relationship not all that dissimilar from the one most of us are in. But that’s the reality. And it should come as no surprise that the workers rights renaissance we’re witnessing nationwide extends to top athletes as well.