The MLB Lockout: A Look at the Issues

By Ross Crowell, GSU Law Library Sports Law Correspondent

Here in Atlanta, many baseball fans should be looking forward to the upcoming baseball season, as the Braves are fresh off of a World Series victory. The Braves should start off the 2022 season in under two months, as their first game is scheduled at the Miami Marlins on March 31. However, the Braves and the rest of Major League Baseball (“MLB”) likely will not be playing games as scheduled. It appears to be an all-but certainty that the 2022 season will not start on time due to the MLB lockout. And ultimately it might be beneficial to remember that the lockout grew out of something everyone who’s taken 1L Contracts is at least passingly familiar with: protracted negotiations over an extremely complex contract.

We are now over two months into the lockout, which has been caused by the owners and players failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). Further, it appears that the two sides have not made much progress in reaching an agreement. The lockout began on December 2, when the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners could not reach an agreement, resulting in the MLB’s first work stoppage since 1994. 

The players and owners are mainly arguing over financial issues, with players upset that they aren’t paid the high salaries they think they deserve. The players also want to change a long-time rule that forces players to wait six years to reach free agency. As players’ first contracts are usually not for substantial money unless they were a high draft pick, this rule forces players to wait a significant amount of time before they can cash in on a big second contract (potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases). 

Further, the players and owners are struggling to reach an agreement on the pre-arbitration bonus pool. The players recently lowered their proposed pre-arbitration bonus pool from $105 million to $100 million, while the owners are sitting at a proposed $10 million. Thus, there is a significant gap in those negotiations. 

Additional issues that the two sides are arguing over are disincentivizing tanking (i.e., stop rewarding teams who intentionally perform poorly), increasing the competitive balance tax threshold, and ending service-time manipulation. The service-time manipulation is an interesting issue that notably occurred with Atlanta’s All Star outfielder Ronald Acuña. With Acuña, the Braves knew that he was ready to be a big contributor during 2018. However, Atlanta waited until three weeks into the season to call Acuña up from the minor leagues, as this would allow the Braves to get an extra year out of Acuña’s contract before hitting free agency. Thus, the players are hoping the new CBA will put an end to this practice. 

Moreover, these negotiations involve several attorneys. Notably, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was a labor and employment partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP prior to his career with the MLB. While Manfred was with Morgan Lewis, he negotiated on behalf of the owners during the 1994-1995 MLB lockout, along with negotiating the league’s first drug-testing program in 2022. Dan Halem, who is the league’s Deputy Commissioner, previously served as a partner at Proskauer Rose LLP, working in labor and employment law, along with sports law. Additionally, Bruce Meyer, the MLB Players Association Senior Director of Collective Bargaining and Legal, is a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP. Meyer also has experience working on behalf of the NHL, NFL, and NBA during arbitrations, lawsuits, and CBA negotiations. 

These are just a handful of things that are being heavily disputed between the players and owners. With spring training tentatively beginning on February 16, it appears highly unlikely that things will get started on time, likely resulting in the regular season getting pushed back. If you are planning on going to the Braves’ home opener on April 7 against the Mets, now might be the time to start coming to the realization that the game may not occur.  

So, when you’re trying to connect tricky concepts around negotiations, contracts, and labor law to the real world, it might actually be beneficial to think of all of those baseball games that will never be played.

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