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Max Willner-Giwerc is a student at the University of Chicago Law School and an avid baseball fan. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
In America, spring doesn’t truly begin until the first pitch on opening day. Unfortunately, the Major League Baseball lockout threatens to prolong winter. With players and owners struggling to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, a delayed start to the season seems likely.
To keep the game on the schedule, the national pastime should add a new twist to its own arbitration rule.
In the legal world, baseball is known for “baseball arbitration” — an innovative technique for resolving certain salary disputes. If a player and his team cannot agree on a salary, and that player is ineligible for free agency, both sides can submit the dispute to an arbitrator. Like in most arbitration proceedings, each side makes its case to the arbitrator.
The key to baseball arbitration, however, is that both sides submit a final offer, and the arbitrator must choose one of the two proposals. Arbitrators cannot split the difference and come up with a third option. This twist forces both parties to moderate their proposals and leads quickly to a more reasonable outcome.
With owners and players seemingly at an impasse, baseball should look to its own arbitration rule to force each side toward a more moderate outcome. The owners and players should each put forth final offers for a new collective bargaining agreement. But instead of using a panel of arbitrators, baseball should leave the final decision with those who know the game best: the fans.
Unlike most industries, baseball is about more than profit. It is an embodiment of our history, a reflection of our present and a symbol of hope for our future. As such, it belongs to all of us.
During the 1981 baseball strike, future MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti had an insightful warning to owners and players: “Remember that you are the temporary custodians of an enduring public trust.” Who better to arbitrate the operation of that trust than the public itself?
What Giamatti wanted most was for play to resume, and he was dismissive of both sides’ “mercantile spats” and “squalid little squabbles.”
It matters to fans where the competitive balance tax is set, how service time is calculated, how pre-arbitration players are compensated. These “mercantile” issues speak to competitive advantage, equality of opportunity and fairness. Fans of all sports care deeply about such values.
If fans are able to vote on owner and player offers, the essential nature of baseball arbitration remains intact. The only difference would be that owners and the players should submit their proposals to fans instead of an arbitration professional. It still keeps the key characteristic of “baseball arbitration” (that each side submits an offer and the arbiter has to choose one of them), but the new twist is that the fans decide instead of a professional arbitrator.
Giamatti was wrong to be so dismissive of players’ and owners’ financial concerns. But he was right that baseball belongs to all of us. In order to usher in opening day and the thaws of spring, owners and players should put forth proposals and let the fans vote.
Let baseball arbitration save the 2022 season, and let the public be the final arbiters of the public trust that inspires us all.