When Marvin Miller took the helm of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, the minimum salary in baseball was $6,000, only $1,000 more than in 1947.
Like waiters and other workers who currently receive the tipped minimum wage (which has been stuck at $2.13 for the past 23 years)major league baseball players endured an extended period of wage stagnation at the bottom of the income scale.
But, these antique wage levels disappeared in 1968 for baseball players, when Miller negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports, which nearly doubled the MLB minimum to $10,000. Collective bargaining has since spread to other sports, allowing the salaries of professional athletes to rise in line with the increasing revenues derived from their labor.
Miller passed away in November 2012 at the age of 95. By then, the MLB minimum yearly salary was $500,000, average player salaries approached $3.5 million, and total league revenue exceeded $8 billion in 2013. Player wages in the NBA and NFL have similarly risen, more or less in line with the growth of their respective sports.
Employees of professional sports corporations are using the court system to secure fairer wages for their labor.
It was through solidarity and collective bargaining that professional athletes at the highest levels began to earn wages close to their actual value. Now, other employees of professional sports corporations are using the court system to secure fairer wages for their labor.
Like the Empire, the Cheerleaders Strike Back
In January 2014, use of the court system to secure a fair wage spread to NFL cheerleaders. Oakland Raiders cheerleader“Lacy T.”sued the team for violating a number of labor and employment laws, including wage theft, failure to pay the minimum wage for all hours worked, and requiring cheerleaders to cover business expenses, all in violation of sections 218 and 1194 of the California Labor Code.
What began as a class-action lawsuit against the Raiders soon led to comparable lawsuits filed by cheerleaders of the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For teams bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, the rates paid seem ridiculously low. Bengals cheerleader Alexa Brenneman claimed the “Ben-Gals”earned just $2.85 an hour for their work, and “Krystal C.” of the Jets flight crew dance team is suing over wages amounting to $3.77 an hour.
The “Buffalo Jills” were subjected to the “jiggle test” and were forced to comply with other rules in order to remain in good standing on the cheer squad. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers paid their cheerleaders less than $2 per hour. Cheerleaders of the professional football team in Washington, D.C. made just $75 a game as employees of the NFL’s most profitable team over the last decade.
The ‘Buffalo Jills’ were subjected to the ‘jiggle test’ in order to remain in good standing on the cheer squad.
In reviewing the allegations included in the lawsuits and the story behind Lacy T.’s participation on the Raiders cheer squad, it was striking how “the strong camaraderie” among the dancers was used not only as a selling point to recruit dancers in lieu of adequate compensation and compliance with state labor standards, but also as a way to discourage Lacy from proceeding with her lawsuit.
Former cheerleaders decried the lawsuit as being the potential “demise of cheerleading” and an affront to “the organization where [cheerleaders] created lasting friendships and a Sisterhood, a family bond.” Another party to Lacy’s lawsuit against the Raiders, fellow cheerleader Sarah, described her experience:
“The Raiders decided they didn’t want to pay us, so they created a bogus contract to fool us and trick us and take advantage of our dreams and our passion.”
Minor Leaguers Turn to the Courts
For a $9 billion industry, the wages paid to professional baseball players in the minor leagues are strikingly low. League minimums in the minors rival the pay rates of fast food workers, and often require players to hold additional jobs during the offseason.
In February 2014, a class action lawsuit filed by Minor League baseball players alleged widespread violations of federal wage and hour laws. The suit is rooted in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the federal minimum wage.
While the MLB is exempt from antitrust laws and big-leaguers are protected by the MLBPA, minor-leaguers are powerless, the suit alleges, and exploited by a system that is “artificially and illegally depressing minor league wages.”
Meager pay combined with grueling hours results in salaries that don’t reach the minimum wage or incorporate overtime pay.
As a result of this “artificial and illegal” suppression, minor league salaries have risen by only 75 percent since 1976. The rate of inflation has risen by 400 percent over the same period of time, thus severely eroding the purchasing power of minor league wages and causing an effective decline in pay rates.
As with the cheerleaders’ lawsuit, the basic contention is that meager pay combined with grueling hours results in salaries that don’t reach the minimum wage or incorporate overtime pay.
The government often treatsbaseball as distinct from other businesses reducing it to “only a game” when relevant laws should be applied. However; unlike antitrust law, Major League Baseball is not exempt from minimum wage and overtime requirements, which bodes well for plaintiffs.
And What About College Athletes?
Just as the professional football team in Washington, D.C. generates an estimated $76 million a year while providing its cheerleaders just $75 per game, the NCAA basketball tournament alone is a business that generates “$740 million annually to conferences and member schools.” Yet, schools often do not provide scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance.
Motivated in part by the desire to rectify the inadequacy of scholarships and football-related scheduling demands that detract significantly from school work, in late April the football players at Northwestern University filed secret ballots on whether to form a union.
Just as Lacy and Sarah heard discouraging remarks from both former and current cheerleaders concerning their lawsuit, the athletes at Northwestern were strongly discouraged from voting in favor of the union by Northwestern coaches, administrators, and alumni.
The good news when it comes to the Raiders cheerleaders is that team management decided to voluntarily comply with the California Labor Code and will now pay the women California’s minimum wage: $9 per hour, plus overtime.
The team previously paid a flat wage of $125 per game, in a lump sum payment at the conclusion of each season. Now, the women will be paid for practices, charity appearances, and rehearsals.
While this is a positive change and could potentially have a “domino effect” throughout the NFL cheerleading industry, according to Lacy’s attorney Leslie Levy, the minimum wage still does not adequately reflect the value these cheerleaders contribute to the team.
NFL cheerleaders, Major League Baseball, and the NCAA all demonstrate once again the idea that “power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and never will.” It required a lawsuit just to get the Oakland Raiders to comply with the California Labor Code, and it will undoubtedly take additional action by the cheerleaders for them to receive a wage that more accurately reflects their value.
To help cheerleaders achieve that goal, the NFL Players Association could expand both its membership and its mission statement to include and represent cheerleaders. At present, the association advocates solely on behalf of players. While it would be plausible for the cheerleaders to form their own union, as NFL Referees have done with the NFL Referee Association, the infrastructure and experience the Players Association has in dealing with the NFL would be an invaluable asset when put to the service of the cheerleaders.
Similarly, given the success of the MLB Players Association, expansion to include minor league players is also worth consideration. Alternatively, the creation of a Minor League players union seems a plausible and necessary way to address the meager wages plaguing that industry.
It will undoubtedly take additional action by the cheerleaders for them to receive a wage that more accurately reflects their value.
As the football players at Northwestern await NLRB review of their ability to unionize, neither the courts nor Congress remain idle.
In March, a high-profile lawsuit against the NCAA and five major conferences alleged that the restriction of athlete compensation to the value of a scholarship violates antitrust laws. NCAA v. O’Bannon is another antitrust suit that challenges the NCAA’s use of player names, images, and likenesses for commercial purposes. Oral arguments ended in June.
And, just last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert faced heavy scrutiny when testifying about the state of college athletics before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Whether through collective bargaining, the courts, congressional scrutiny, or legislation, it is heartening to see concrete steps are being taken to correct the extreme injustices that continue to exist within the NCAA, NFL, and MLB. Despite their immense success and profitability, neither the NFL, MLB, or NCAA will cede anything without challenge.
The athletes and the cheerleaders have girded for battle.