Houston Astros Scandal Reveals Deeper Problems Facing MLB and the MLBPA - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Houston Astros Scandal Reveals Deeper Problems Facing MLB and the MLBPA

Houston Astros Scandal Reveals Deeper Problems Facing MLB and the MLBPA

For Major League Baseball (“MLB”), this past offseason has largely been dominated by one storyline: the Houston Astros cheating scandal. In 2017, the players and front office of the Astros devised a scheme that combined algorithms, center-field cameras, and trash cans.1 Cameras were used to record opposing teams’ signals to their pitchers, which were then transmitted to the Astros’ replay room in an effort to predict patterns.2 Finally, these patterns were shared with the dugout where members of the Astros would bang a trash can to relay the message to the player at bat.3

While there are few people in the baseball community who would contend that this scandal is not a significant issue, Major League Baseball Players Association (“MLBPA”) executive director Tony Clark believes that this scandal is simply a microcosm of a larger issue in front of baseball.4 Technology of all types has become ubiquitous in the industry of baseball. Teams use various technologies for everything from training and scouting to pricing and distribution for tickets and hot dogs.5 This is precisely what Clark was referencing in his belief that the Astros scandal exposes something much deeper. As recent as this past February, Clark has argued a culture exists that is using technology and numbers to maximize efficiency and change the game.6 He contends that this culture is what led to the sign-stealing scheme in Houston while furthering its reach to affect free agency, manipulation of player service time, salary arbitration, and player evaluation.7 These further reaching affects, Clark implies, are being used to “devalue players and dictate their actions in a compromising way.”8

These comments come at a critical time for both MLB and the MLBPA. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) between the two is set to expire after the 2021 season and there is a growing sense in the baseball world that both sides are heading towards a work stoppage.9 Prior to the scandal in Houston, the focus of labor talks has been on the recent trends of inactive free agent markets and service-time manipulation, issues which the MLBPA seemed largely aligned.10 However, the cheating scandal has posed a legitimate threat to disrupt the solidarity and momentum that the MLBPA had built going into the negotiations.11

One of the most hotly debated outcomes of the Astros scandal was the fact that no players involved were disciplined by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Many players around the league have expressed frustration with this outcome, believing opposing players’ careers were harmed as a direct result.12 This has seemingly created a rift between the members of the 2017 Houston Astros and the rest of the league. This chasm has placed Tony Clark in an uncomfortable situation. The MLBPA partly exists, and is obligated under federal law, to protect all players from instances in which MLB decides to discipline certain behaviors.13 As a result, Clark is obligated to defend those involved in this scandal while also appealing to those players who believe they should have been punished.

Clark will be faced with the tasks of aligning the MLBPA to rebuild the solidarity and momentum it had prior to the sign-stealing scandal and limit the use of technologies so this does not happen again, all while appealing to those players who have embraced the progressive data analytics age of baseball. It is hard to foresee what exactly will be done, as it is one thing to be critical of this efficiency-first culture that has grown out of the use of technologies, it is a wholly different challenge to actually change the culture.14 One potential includes giving the MLBPA access to the various platforms and software that MLB and individual teams use to analyze player data and information; though this could create another set of problems should teams argue its technologies are proprietary to their organization.15 Clark has raised these concerns before, and while the sign-stealing issue has strengthened his position in some ways, it has made the MLBPA potentially more vulnerable in others.16

For the MLBPA, the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal has undoubtedly created the necessity to adequately address the use of technology in baseball, but it has also created new obstacles the union must address internally, including unifying the players once again. Amidst the reality of a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Baseball finds itself with having only one full season left under the current CBA. Thus, it is imperative that Clark, the MLBPA, and Major League Baseball use this scandal as a learning experience to reign in the use of technology and maintain collective bargaining peace. The future of the sport may just depend on it.

  1. Michael McCann, A Union Divided: Astros Cheating Scandal Rocks MLB Players Association, Sports Illustrated (Feb. 18, 2020), https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/02/18/houston-astros-cheating-scandal-mlbpa [https://perma.cc/V8PZ-SSYF].

  2. Id.

  3. Id.

  4. Andrew Cohen, MLBPA Executive Director Wants to Examine Technology in Baseball Beyond Astros’ Scandal, SPORTTECHIE (Feb. 25, 2020), https://www.sporttechie.com/mlb-mlbpa-executive-director-tony-clark-baseball-technology-houston-astros [https://perma.cc/BSJ5-CQ9D].

  5. Bill Shaikin, Sign-Stealing Scandal: Should MLB Restrict the Use of Technology or Embrace it?, L.A. Times (Jan. 27, 2020), https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2020-01-27/dodgers-astros-sign-stealing-scandal-technology-restrict-or-embrace [https://perma.cc/J39E-5ACD].

  6. Jesse Dougherty, MLB Players’ Union Chief, at Astros Camp, Wants Broader Conversations on Sign-Stealing, The Wash. Post (Feb. 21, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/02/21/mlb-players-union-chief-astros-camp-wants-broader-conversation-sign-stealing/ [https://perma.cc/L6TZ-496K].

  7. Id.

  8. Id.

  9. Azam Farooqui, How to Fix Major League Baseball’s CBA, Beyond the Box Score (Jul. 16, 2019), https://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2019/7/16/20695856/major-league-baseball-collective-bargaining-agreement-cba-potential-strike [https://perma.cc/L5VM-5M4Z].

  10. Bill Baer, MLBPA has a Bit of a Problem on Its Hands, Hardball Talk NBC Sports, (Feb. 18, 2020), https://mlb.nbcsports.com/2020/02/18/mlbpa-has-a-bit-of-a-problem-on-its-hands/ [https://perma.cc/WQ6T-MCUG].

  11. Id.

  12. Evan Drellich, Drellich: Even Without Granting Immunity, MLB Would Have Had Trouble Punishing Astros Players, The Athletic (Feb. 17, 2020), https://theathletic.com/1614464/2020/02/17/drellich-even-without-granting-immunity-mlb-would-have-had-trouble-punishing-astros-players/ [https://perma.cc/B2L8-WKMD].

  13. Id.

  14. Evan Drellich, Drellich: Tony Clark Points to Front-Office Culture, Tech in Wake of Scandal, The Athletic (Feb. 24, 2020), https://theathletic.com/1629397/2020/02/24/drellich-tony-clark-points-to-front-office-culture-tech-in-wake-of-scandal/ [https://perma.cc/V4CG-YEKJ].

  15. Id.

  16. Id.

James Howard

James Howard is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. He holds an A.B. in History from Tufts University.