MLB players need a history lesson on labor relations in sports

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article was initially published on

Swing and a miss.

Beginning March 18, it was reported in multiple places that a contingent of Major League Baseball players pushed for Tony Clark, Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, to fire Deputy Executive Director Bruce Meyer, the union’s top attorney, and have him replaced with former union attorney Harry Marino. The series of events was shockingly inconsistent with Players Association’s history and reflected that at least some of its players seem to have a poor understanding of labor relations in sports.

The “coup” attempt

According to reports, on March 18, Mr. Clark, in his 11th year as Executive Director after a 15-year big league career, held a nearly three-hour video call with player-members of its executive board to discuss the possibility of having Mr. Marino replace Mr. Meyer. Mr. Marino, a 33-year former minor leaguer and associate at the prestigious Williams & Connolly LLP, was central to minor league players’ unionizing under the Players Association umbrella in 2022 and the collective bargaining agreement negotiated the next year with MLB. However, tension reportedly developed between Mr. Marino, on the one hand, and Mr. Clark and Mr. Meyer, on the other, during that process. As a result, Mr. Marino left the union.

Some major league players are apparently upset with the results of their 2022 collective bargaining agreement with MLB (not to be confused with the agreement that minor league players negotiated in 2023). Mr. Meyer was the lead negotiator for the major league agreement. This past offseason seemed slow to some players. There were only four contracts signed for a total value of at least $100 million, down from nine last offseason. Then, players were perturbed when the San Francisco Giants released infielder J.D. Davis after he won his salary arbitration and was due to earn $6.9 million. However, this has always been a risk for players who won arbitration awards.

Finally, some players apparently believe that Mr. Meyer is too close with super-agent Scott Boras, theoretically favoring Mr. Boras’ clients over the rest of the union’s membership. Mr. Boras denied these accusations and called the situation a “coup.”

It’s not clear whether Mr. Marino approached the players or vice versa. But it is clear is that Mr. Marino is seeking to capitalize on the situation to replace Mr. Meyer (if not Mr. Clark). A PowerPoint presentation reportedly circulated criticizing both Mr. Clark and Mr. Meyer. Mr. Marino then released a plan of action for his first 250 days as part of union leadership, including conducting an audit of union finances and vague ideas about shifting power back to the players.

On the March 18 videoconference, Mr. Clark rejected calls to remove Mr. Meyer. Then, in a March 21 letter to players, Mr. Meyer defended his record and pushed back against the criticism. The future is uncertain.

Mr. Meyer’s record

News articles about the situation describe Mr. Meyer as having been the union’s lead negotiator in the 2022 collective bargaining negotiations, after having joined the union in 2018. Some articles note (correctly) that he joined the MLB Players Association after two years at the National Hockey League Players Association.

These blurbs don’t even begin to do justice to Mr. Meyer’s resume, of which too many MLB players seem to be unaware or unappreciative.

Mr. Meyer began his legal career at the powerhouse law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in 1986. At that time, Weil, under the direction of the now-legendary Jim Quinn, represented players in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, as well as their unions, in labor negotiations and litigation with the leagues and teams.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, while NFL players were playing without a collective bargaining agreement after a failed strike during the 1987 season, Mr. Meyer was a key part of the team representing NFL players in a marathon series of lawsuits that chipped away at the NFL’s free agency restrictions, case by case.

In Powell (1989), the players established that if they decertified the NFL Players Association as their bargaining representative, they could bring claims under antitrust law. Then, in McNeil (1992), a jury awarded eight players damages arising out of the NFL’s restrictive “Plan B” free agency system. A few weeks later in Jackson (1992), a court granted an injunction against Plan B. Finally, in White (1993), the players pursued a class action for hundreds of millions of dollars against NFL clubs for their past restraints on free agency. As a result, the case was settled and allowed players to receive unrestricted free agency rights for the first time. The Supreme Court eventually weighed in via Brown (1996), to help establish the boundaries of the non-statutory labor exemption, which protects leagues from antitrust scrutiny when they negotiate restrictive rules with their players.

Mr. Meyer was there for all these cases, most of which took place before Mr. Marino was old enough to read. Moreover, Mr. Meyer’s colleague in these battles was Jeffrey Kessler, now of Winston & Strawn LLP, and recognized as the leading litigator on behalf of professional and amateur athletes today. Mr. Kessler and Mr. Meyer were the lead lieutenants under the tutelage of Mr. Quinn, developing and honing strategies on behalf of professional athletes that are the accepted playbook today.

Baseball’s labor history

The antitrust claims that Mr. Meyer and his colleagues were pursuing in the mid-1990s against the NFL were unavailable to MLB players at that time, by virtue of baseball’s anomalous antitrust exemption. Regardless, the approach of NFL and MLB players was consistent in three respects: (1) resist backsliding, (2) pursue incremental change, and (3) stay united.

In 1994, Don Fehr, who at the time was Executive Director of the MLB Players Association, was willing to enter the pantheon of sports villains by leading a strike of MLB players that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. Mr. Fehr did so in order to resist MLB’s efforts to impose a salary cap, an omnipresent goal of MLB clubs which by that time had made its way into the NBA and the NFL. The MLB Players Association could take such dramatic action only through solidarity that had been hardwired into the union since its formation under the leadership of former steelworker economist Marvin Miller. In the end, MLB didn’t get its salary cap, and the Players Association won multiple lawsuits against the clubs. The Players Association also successfully lobbied for the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which repealed the antitrust exemption as applied to major league players. The Act is named for the former All Star who sacrificed his career to fight for free agency.

Going back to the 1970s, MLB players didn’t achieve free agency through a masterstroke of initiative like that Mr. Marino seems to promise. Instead, free agency resulted from an incrementalist approach like the one pursued by the NFL players pursued in the 1980s and 90s. At the end of the 1975 season, the MLB Players Association filed a grievance arguing that players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally had played out the option years of their contracts and were thus free agents. (EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this post referred to "John Messersmith" rather than Andy Messersmith.) An arbitrator agreed, and both a federal district court and court of appeals declined to disturb that conclusion. The case provided players with the leverage to cement free agency in the 1976 collective bargaining agreement.

The next pitch

Mr. Fehr retired from the MLB Players Association in 2009, before being persuaded the next year to take over as head of the NHL Players Association, historically the most ineffective union in professional sports. In 2016, Mr. Fehr recruited Mr. Meyer to leave behind his prestigious position as a partner at Weil to help lead collective bargaining efforts at the NHLPA. Mr. Fehr undoubtedly did so because at that time, outside of Mr. Quinn and Mr. Kessler, there was no lawyer with more experience in collective bargaining negotiations with professional sports leagues. Indeed, the NHLPA is in better shape today than at any point in its pre-Fehr history.

Mr. Meyer’s letter to players rightfully warned players against suggestions of “easy fixes.” Indeed, the history of labor relations in sports demonstrates that nothing will be given but must be won patiently, case by case, negotiation by negotiation. No one knows that better than Mr. Meyer. MLB players would be wise to listen to him.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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