Rule holds back today's would-be Jackie Robinsons

Posted: April 22, 2013

By Stephen F. Ross

The new film 42 celebrates the heroic story of Jackie Robinson, who integrated baseball in 1947 and, many agree, set the stage for the more complete integration of society that followed. However, the movie belies a sad contemporary reality: If Jack Roosevelt Robinson were a teenager in North Philadelphia today, it is highly unlikely he would play professional baseball.

Today, baseball's color line is not formally black or white, but green with a racial tint: The opportunities to be a big-league ballplayer divide between those whose families have the money to provide their kids access to elite traveling teams, and those who don't.

Today, a young teen with Robinson's ability would be welcomed by his high school football team, and Amateur Athletic Union basketball reaches out to develop (and sometimes exploit) poor kids. There is no real equivalent for baseball.

Anecdotal research based on some minor league Phillies rosters reveals many Dominicans and other non-Americans, and many North Americans whose parents had paid thousands of dollars for elite youth baseball development, but very few poor American kids.

The irony is that a kid with Robinson's talent and character would more likely make it to the Show if he were a poor Dominican than a working-class African American born in the shadow of a Major League Baseball park. And this is primarily due to an unintended effect of a 47-year- old baseball rule, rather than the hostility portrayed in 42.

Major League Rule 4 provides that all North American amateurs are subject to a draft. A draft can facilitate competitive balance in some sense (and is often credited with ending the Yankees' dominance of the American League from the late 1940s through the mid-60s). The collateral damage, in light of the privatization of training and development of elite baseball players, is to make it difficult for poor and working-class kids to excel.

There are typically three ways to solve social problems. One is a government solution, in this case a national program to train elite players. However, in our budget-strapped world, this hardly seems like a priority for government, and it's unlikely that bureaucrats would be able to successfully train players and develop their talent. A second way would be for the nonprofit sector to provide equality of opportunity. Under this approach, organizations would accept donations to fund programs to train underprivileged players. This scenario, too, is unlikely. It would be expensive, and the sort of individuals and corporations sympathetic to these concerns are likely to perceive an even greater social need to provide nonelite recreational opportunities to disadvantaged kids.

Finally, there is a market solution, where we ensure that for-profit businesses have the right incentives to train and develop poor kids. Although a variety of businesses could devise ways to profitably train elite ballplayers, we already know that MLB clubs themselves believe that this way of developing talent is profitable. Many clubs already spend millions to train Dominicans and other players outside our borders - where they are not subject to the Rule 4 draft - and then sign prospects for further training in the minor leagues.

Why should the Phillies provide academies in the Caribbean but not in their own backyard? (The Phillies have local efforts, but they are community-directed toward grassroots sports, not the development of the next Jackie Robinson.) Logic suggests that the team would be happy to open nearby local academies if, as with their offshore academies, youths developed in these academies could be signed to contracts without the draft. They fail to do so not out of malice, but because a rule devised when all kids, rich and poor, could develop genuine baseball talent no longer works the same way today.

If major Silicon Valley firms all agreed to provide intensive computer training to bright teens with technical aptitude in Asia, but not in the United States, it would not only be stupid but would also be a violation of federal employment law that bars discrimination on the basis of national origin. Ironically, African Americans and others in urban or disadvantaged environments are subjected to formal discrimination not because of their skin color, but because they are Americans.

The time has come for MLB to give today's Jackie Robinson a chance. Owners should change the rules to give clubs the incentive to do the right thing.


Stephen F. Ross is a professor of law and director of the Institute for Sports Law, Policy, and Research at Pennsylvania State University. E-mail him at sfr10@dsl.psu.edu.

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