Why “Save America’s Pastime Act” Threatens Minor League Baseball
Image via Minor League Baseball
Major League Baseball (MLB) will now require teams to provide housing for minor league baseball players starting in 2022. With that backdrop in mind, it’s time to reevaluate whether the “Save America’s Pastime Act” (SAPA) actually saves professional baseball or really obstructs major avenues of it.
SAPA, a federal law passed by Congress, must be read in conjunction with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which “establishes [federal] minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private [and public] sector[s].” The FLSA specifies exemptions for employees of certain establishments and in certain occupations.
Minor League Baseball (MiLB)—and specifically the baseball players within MiLB—are subject to the FLSA’s “Seasonal Exemption.” The Seasonal Exemption specifies that any employee “employed by an establishment which is an amusement or recreational establishment” is exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime provisions “if  it does not operate for more than seven months in any calendar year . . .” Because a minor league baseball season does not operate for more than seven months in any calendar year (the season takes place primarily between April and August), MLB deems MiLB players “seasonal workers” who are generally exempt from minimum wage requirement and overtime lawsuits brought by players. This result has sparked fierce debate.
Courts have historically sided with both MLB and the players in deciding baseball-related wage issues. In Jeffrey v. Sarasota White Sox, for example, the court sided with MLB. The plaintiff, a groundskeeper for the defendant Sarasota White Sox Inc. (a MiLB team), claimed that he was entitled to recover payment of time and a half for hours that he worked in excess of forty hours per week under the FLSA’s Seasonal Exemption. The Eleventh Circuit found that the Sarasota White Sox Inc. was entitled to the Seasonal Exemption because it was an amusement or recreational establishment that operated for less than seven months out of the year.
In Bridewell v. Cincinnati Reds, however, the Sixth Circuit sided with the players. There, the Sixth Circuit found that the Cincinnati Reds organization was not entitled to the Seasonal Exemption because it did not qualify as a seasonal entertainment establishment under the FLSA (i.e., the organization operated for more than seven months out of the year). In analyzing the organization’s entire operations, the court reasoned that, although the Cincinnati Reds received income during the off-season, almost all of it was tied directly to the playing of baseball games during the season.
Again, in a class-action lawsuit captioned Senne v. Kansas City Royals, forty-five minor league baseball players challenged the Season Exemption. After the players navigated various procedural hurdles (including complicated choice-of-law and forum-related questions), the players filed a Second Amended Complaint, generally alleging that the players should qualify as protected employees and no longer be subject to the Season Exemption. In October 2015, the court preliminarily certified the collective action—of which over 2,200 players opted in—but MLB successfully moved to decertify the players’ collective action. Subsequently, the players moved for reconsideration after addressing the district court’s concerns, and the district court re-certified the FLSA collective action. Against this backdrop, MLB aggressively lobbied to diminish Senne’s scope, which ultimately culminated in the enactment of SAPA.
Congress passed SAPA to exempt minor league baseball players from the protections of the FLSA. Read in conjunction with the FLSA, SAPA thus fortifies the Seasonal Exemption by capping the federal compensation of minor league professional baseball players and preventing all professional players from qualifying for overtime pay. Most minor league baseball players make less than $15,000 per year, work multiple jobs, and don’t receive a livable annual salary. Even more, MiLB players are not compensated during spring training—a mandated work requirement. In effect, even though many professional players work more than forty-hours per week, SAPA disrupts the efficacy of bringing suit and reinforces the idea that players should be precluded from the benefits received by non-exempt employees under the FLSA.
Inconspicuously placed on page 1,967 of a 2,232-page omnibus spending bill, SAPA seems to actually obstruct major avenues of professional baseball, rather than save it. Although the housing mandate was a win for the players, it was simply one major step in the right direction. Until SAPA is revised or replaced, it will continue to accelerate the denigration of minor league baseball and threaten the stability of MiLB.
Michael Fasciale is a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey. He serves as the President of the Seton Hall Entertainment & Sports Law Society, and as an Articles Editor on the Seton Hall Law Review. He can be reached on LinkedIn @Michael-Fasciale or on Twitter @MFasciale_.
 See Jeff Passan, (@JeffPassan), Twitter (Oct. 17, 2021, 6:26 PM), https://twitter.com/JeffPassan/status/1449864524945936397.  See John Brucker, [Screw America’s Pastime Act: The Mirage of SAPA & Minor League Baseball Wages], 51 Seton Hall L. Rev. 517 (2020) (providing a comprehensive analysis of this argument).  Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act, U.S. Dept. Of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/flsa.  How The Minor Leagues Work, MiLB.Tv (Apr. 20, 2016), https://www.milb.com/news/gcs-173407668 (defining MiLB as “teams made up of players under the control of a major league system”).  The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(3)(A) (2018).  See Brucker, supra note 1, at 522–33 (arguing that the exemption is “almost offensively inconsistent with the modern realities of the sport’s main attraction [i.e., the players,]” and contending that such immunity “contradicts the original legislative intent of the law.”).  Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, 64 F.3d 590, 596–97 (11th Cir. 1995).  Jeffrey, 64 F.3d at 597.  Bridewell v. Cincinnati Reds, 155 F.3d 828, 832 (6th Cir. 1998).  Bridewell, 155 F.3d at 829.  Id. at 830.  Senne v. Kan. City Royals Baseball Corp., 114 F. Supp. 3d 906, 908 (N.D. Cal. 2015).  Senne v. Kan. City Royals Baseball Corp., 934 F.3d 918, 924 (9th Cir. 2019).  Senne, 934 F.3d at 925.  Id.  Save America’s Pastime Act, H.R. Con. Res. 5580, 114th Cong. (2018).  Jeff Passan, Major League Baseball to Require Teams to Provide Housing for Minor League Players Starting in 2022, ESPN (Oct. 17, 2021), https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/32412532/boston-red-sox-hit-2-grand-slams-first-2-innings-alcs-game-2-first-team-do-postseason.  Note that, even though SAPA appears to shield MLB from federal wage law disputes, it does not preempt state-law based claims.