Even as Major League Baseball reached an agreement Thursday to end a 99-day lockout of its players, one of the highest-ranking members of the U.S. Senate said he intends to look into a century-old Supreme Court ruling that enables the league to operate as a lawful monopoly.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Inquirer that he will seek a hearing to discuss revoking MLB’s exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act. No other professional sports league was ever granted the same exemption, and it has allows MLB to conduct its business in ways that would be illegal in other industries.
“I want to have a hearing,” Durbin said in an interview Thursday. “It’s an interesting legal, political challenge as to how to treat baseball and whether baseball as an entity has a special treatment under the law and shouldn’t be treated as any other corporation when it comes to objectionable conduct. I think it’s time to ask those questions all over again.”
An MLB spokesperson said Thursday the league didn’t have an immediate comment on Durbin’s pursuit of a congressional hearing.
Durbin, who believes he would have bipartisan support in such a hearing, interjected himself into the protracted lockout Wednesday night when he tweeted that it’s time to “reconsider” baseball’s antitrust exemption. He also implored the owners to “unlock the lockout and play ball.” The message had been retweeted more than 2,500 times and received more than 10,400 likes as of 5 p.m. Thursday.
MLB’s special treatment stems from a 1922 Supreme Court case in which it was stated that professional baseball isn’t a matter of interstate commerce and therefore outside the scope of antitrust law. The ruling has been challenged often over the years, but Durbin said the Supreme Court has deferred to Congress.
Last year, several members of Congress, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, threatened to take up the antitrust issue after MLB moved the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in opposition to Georgia’s election laws. In December, lawyers representing four of the 40 minor-league teams that last year were stripped of their affiliation with major-league clubs filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York that alleges collusive behavior by MLB to determine the franchises’ fate.
“I brought [MLB] up this morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Mike Lee, Republican from Utah, said, ‘I’ve got a bill on the subject,’” Durbin said. “I said, ‘Well, then at least two of us will be at the hearing.’ I think there will be many more.”
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Durbin described himself as a baseball fan and expressed an appreciation for the national pastime’s place as “a big part of Americana.” But he also pointed to the low wages and poor working conditions that minor leaguers typically endure as reasons to challenge MLB’s antitrust exemption.
“When it comes down to the basic business mechanism, why do they enjoy this special status in American law?” Durbin said. “Is it consistent with some of the games we want to reach in terms of compensation for players, for example? The minor-league players are lucky to get paid at all, let alone anything that reflects their talents.
“I think the [antitrust] question needs to be asked periodically — and it’s long overdue.”