MLB: A new oversight structure is desparately needed

Tony Clark, Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Tony Clark, Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) /

The latest collusion allegation illustrates the need for a new governing structure. That structure would position MLB to handle disputes internally.

If the issue raised by MLBPA Executive Tony Clark becomes a full-blown controversy, it will illustrate one of the fundamental structural problems that has faced MLB since its inception, and which continues to face it.

That problem is the absence of any internal, neutral authority capable of settling significant disputes between players and clubs and/or owners.

The core of Clark’s objection lies in his assertion that a recent revelation by Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos of discussions between the Braves and other teams may have violated a provision of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That provision prohibits teams from colluding among themselves regarding the signing of free agents.

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The game of baseball has two principal and major elements – the teams and the players – and they are governed separately. The team’s answer to a commissioner – at the present, Rob Manfred – who team owners hire and fire.

The teams employ players on a contractual basis. But collectively the players’ interests are represented by the MLBPA, which is headed by Clark, an employee hired by the players.

That complete division of responsibility means that any time a dispute arrives between players – either individually or collectively – and owners, there is no naturally neutral internal body positioned to resolve the dispute. (The exception is for certain disciplinary cases, where a player’s basic contract empowers the commissioner to exercise mutually negotiated levels of discipline.)

Manfred’s office can’t do it because he is ultimately answerable only to the club owners. Clark’s office can’t do it for the polar opposite reason: the results of their probe would be seen as biased toward the players’ cause.

Inevitably, that means only an outside agency – an arbitrator – can handle such an inquiry.

A better system — one that would handle disputes ‘in house’ — could be devised. It would necessitate players and club owners ceding part of their power by jointly creating a third player to join Clark and Manfred at the top of the game’s power structure. But both the players and owners would gain far more in the game’s overall structural stability than they would surrender.

Ideally, this third party would be selected by the game’s fan base – possibly by a vote — and empowered to act in the best interests of either fans or the game generally or both. It would leave the commissioner, the MLBPA leader and the fan representative as a composite oversight body.

Under such a trilogy structure, disputes between any two of the entities could be kept in-house via submission to the game’s three joint leaders, the votes of any two prevailing to settle the issue. This would retain the opportunity for owners and players to exercise a veto when it was in their mutual interests to do so, but would require some level of cooperation between those two groups.

There were feints in such a direction a century ago in the immediate aftermath of the Black Sox scandal. Instead, club owners operated for a dictator-style arrangement. They gave Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis a lifetime contract, and Landis exercised control until his death in 1944.

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When Landis died, however, the MLB team owners did what have always done since then: they went looking for somebody they could control. When Marvin Miller empowered the players in the 1960s, he did precisely the same thing, making player-club relations even more overtly adversarial. That’s the mode in which player-team relations have operated ever since.