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Books | Sports

October 8, 2013

Where the Players Rule

Professor Daniel Gilbert explains the source of the MLBPA's considerable power—its stars.

Elliot Magruder

Each day last week, the midtown headquarters of Major League Baseball was the site of a surreal spectacle, both inside and out on the street. As a small but clamorous group of supporters congregated on Park Avenue, Alex Rodriguez presented his case to an arbitrator as part of what he himself has referred to as the fight of his life. Rodriguez is trying to overturn his record-setting 211 game suspension for allegedly using performance enhancing drugs. To do so, he's exercising the due process rights and economic freedom granted to him by baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement, something that was unavailable to players who played just a few decades ago.

Daniel Gilbert
"The union has been successful since the mid-60s in arguing that MLB would not exist without its star players."

Daniel Gilbert

In the book Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency, Daniel Gilbert—an assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—describes how the Major League Baseball Players Association has become the most powerful union in professional sports. He takes the reader through the history of unionization in professional baseball, from the nascent days when Marvin Miller organized the players to abolish the reserve clause and demand pension reform to its recent multi-faceted battle against the use of PEDs. In a time when unions in every industry are desperate to retain any shred of power, Gilbert describes how the Players Association retains its status as the counterweight to MLB ownership.

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Gilbert tells Gelf about the Players Association's strategy to derive its power from star players; how the portrayal of baseball as America's National Pastime is largely a myth; and whether the age of taxpayer financed stadiums has mercifully ended.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think is the source of the Players Association's considerable power?

Daniel Gilbert: One of the things that I think is really interesting about the MLBPA is the way it found its particular form of power: in the star power of its members. The union has been successful since the mid-60s in arguing that MLB would not exist without these star players. One of the starting points for the book was trying to understand how the MLBPA has been so successful when the rest of the American labor movement is struggling to retain any sense of power.

Gelf Magazine: The MLBPA seems to have more power than any other sports union. Unlike the other three major sports, they've avoided a lockout, and they've negotiated collective bargaining agreements considered more favorable to the players. Why has it been able to do so?

Daniel Gilbert: The answer to that begins with the players' decision to hire Marvin Miller in 1966 as their leader at a time when players were looking for things like retirement benefits. Miller actually knew something about how to organize and how a union works. In his first decade, Miller helped transform the union in that way, and it's why the MLBPA stands apart from other sports unions now. Also, baseball players have always managed to stay remarkably united and cohesive even during some really tough battles with the owners. This is in a time when prominent members of the NFLPA were crossing the picket line and weakening the power of the organization. The baseball players stayed united and it was actually the owners who couldn't stay on the same page.

Gelf Magazine: Is an emphasis on star players and individualism within the MLBPA somewhat responsible for the problems associated with PED use?

Daniel Gilbert: I think of the steroids controversy as a case study of the power dynamics in the industry. The union helped shape this dynamic by being such a powerful organization. For a long time, the MLBPA, like any good union, responded to the PED issue by standing up to protect the individual rights of players. As a union that finds its power in the free market power of its star players, the MLBPA has always worked to maximize the right of players to exert that star power. The steroid controversy is an example of a problem that results from that form of unionism when the needs of individual star players come at the expense of the collective concerns of professional athletes. I think players are collectively pushing for a different type of approach to PEDs by the MLBPA.

Gelf Magazine: Is the MLBPA reaction to the Biogenesis suspensions and the myriad controversies surrounding Alex Rodriguez an example of this different approach?

Daniel Gilbert: Well, the union is faced with the challenge of both standing up for individuals and the broad interests of the collective. Obviously I'm not on the inside of the MLBPA deliberations; my sense is that it tries to act as much as it can for the individual players accused of using PEDs while also being attuned to the fact that more and more players are speaking up and saying they want to see more of an active role in ensuring the game is fair.

Gelf Magazine: The book discusses some opposition to using public financing to build the Kingdome in the 1970s. Given the issues with public financing of stadiums—like >a href="">Jeffrey Loria's monstrosity in Miami—and the fact that study after study say the economic impact is minimal, do you think the era of public financing of sports venues is coming to an end?

Daniel Gilbert: I'm skeptical we are anywhere near the end of public financing for stadiums. MLB still retains monopoly power that it wields over cities by threatening to move if its demands aren't met. Even though more people are skeptical about ownership's claims regarding economic development, baseball retains so much cultural power that it can still mobilize coalitions to push through funding.

Gelf Magazine: Your book discusses how racialized language is used in the context of describing non-American baseball players. One example is former LA Times columnist Jim Murray arguing that Fernando Valenzuela should be on his knees thanking "Our Lady of Guadalupe" that he has a job during poor economic times for the rest of the country. This is shocking to read today. Does that dynamic still persist in 2013?

Daniel Gilbert: I absolutely think it remains one of the fundamental structuring elements of commentary on and about professional athletes. One of the reasons that sports matter in contemporary life is because we invest all kinds of cultural meaning in the athletes that we follow. The language we use to comment on athletes continues to be deeply racialized.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that tendency explains some of the negative reaction to voting for Hideki Matsui for the Rookie of the Year or to the celebration after Ichiro's 4000th hit, given that not all of those hits happened in the MLB?

Daniel Gilbert: I think so. There is a way that media figures in the United States who work for the major institutions of sports journalism continue to police the boundaries of full citizenship in the baseball world. What's also true and what we as US-sports fans may not always remember, is that if you read a conversation about these same athletes in a Dominican newspaper, the construct and the perspective will be entirely different and generally more positive and representative of the success of Dominican professional athletes throughout history.

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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