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Keeping Baseball From Striking Out

Baseball enjoys a unique exemption from federal antitrust laws. The time has come to reduce that exemption.

Historically, antitrust laws promote free competition by forbidding monopolies and price-fixing and other conspiracies that restrain trade. But baseball owners have been able to use their exemption to control the game and players in ways that ordinarily would violate federal law. This must end.

Quite properly, Congress, its hand strengthened by public opinion generated by the current ugly strike, has been reconsidering major league baseball’s antitrust exemption. In our view, it would be right to revoke that portion of the exemption that pertains to labor relations, while allowing the owners to retain a modified reserve system in the minor leagues.

Why go this route? Although it’s hard to feel sorry for players with salaries that are many, many times that of the average American worker, it is the players, after all, who provide the interest in the game and its value. More to the point, the antitrust exemption leaves players with few legal options off the field. They cannot sue to challenge working conditions, for instance, and cannot move freely to another team until they meet certain conditions.

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The effect of the current system is to perpetuate mistrust and labor strife. The reform we propose wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would constitute a right step.

The reason we’re uncomfortable with a wholesale junking of the antitrust exemption is that it might result in unwanted and destructive challenges to the minor league reserve clause and the draft system. The owners still should have the opportunity to develop viable farm systems without their labor costs going through the roof.

The old argument against removal of the antitrust exemption is that professional baseball is only a sport, not a business. But that argument didn’t convince a lot of people even back in 1922 when Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote on behalf of the majority that the owners and operators of organized baseball were not engaged in “trade or commerce” and therefore could conduct their monopoly without regard to antitrust law.

It was a questionable decision that haunts the game today. Subsequent rulings and investigations opened the door to reform, despite political pressures. Now the time has come to modify the antitrust exemption in order to bring the grand old game in line with other major sports and to ensure its viability in the future.

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On Thursday the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill addressing this issue, but there is still a long way to go before change comes. With no baseball to cheer, let’s cheer on the Congress.


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