The COVID-19 pandemic brought all professional sports to a sudden and unprecedented stop; Major League Baseball (“MLB”) paused its season during spring training, the National Hockey League (“NHL”) paused shortly before its playoffs were set to begin, and the National Basketball Association (“NBA”) paused its season, notably just after a player was diagnosed with the virus. Since that time, management and unions for players within those leagues have engaged in extensive discussions about how to best resume their seasons. It has been a true test of labor laws and work collaboration necessitating decisive action in a time of great uncertainty, and some fared better than others.
Indeed, many leagues expedited their processes and had relatively smooth negotiations. The NBA is planning to resume a portion of its regular season and then playoffs in a bubble in Orlando Florida starting July 30, though many key players may not return for the season. The NHL has announced its plan to have a 24-team playoff in late May. MLB, however, slow rolled the reopening process, with both Owners and the Players’ Union introducing and fouling off proposals on restarting the season without forming a consensus. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, most of the negotiation revolved largely not around safety issues, but around economics which many believe is an attempt by both sides to set the tone for contract bargaining next year.
The Owners, during this time, used the exigent circumstances to push for bargaining items they wanted in the past but were unable to get through. The Owners’ wish-list for negotiations included curbing players’ salaries and revamping (and eliminating) many minor league teams. At one point, the Owners proposed a reduction in games to 82 with accompanying salary proration. They also took aim at the minor leagues – a dangerous position in that the minors are often the only way for baseball fans in smaller towns to watch live games of professional or amateur players and to grow the sport. Some even took aim at the lowest paid members of the baseball community. For example, in the Washington Nationals’ minor league system, the lowest paid players are currently on stipends of $400 per week. The team decided to cut pay there anyway by 25 percent, thinking this was the best way to save funds during the pandemic. Major League players, led by Sean Doolittle, a reliever for the Nationals, announced he and other players would cover the reduction in the minor leaguers’ salaries. This announcement caused the Nationals’ Owner to quickly reverse his decision.