Revisiting the Obligation vs. Charity Issue in Baseball Retirement Benfits

In a recent post, Ethics Alarms discussed that demands of a group of former Major League baseball who receive inferior retirement benefits, because the changes made to the game’s pension and health insurance qualifications in 1980 were not made retroactive. The group has argued that it was unfair for the baseball clubs and players union to have voluntarily extended benefits to  pre-1947 players—players who played before there were any retirement benefits at all—and not them. The post argued…

“…The inclusion of the older players, from before 1947, was not the same: the group included many of the game’s greatest players, who could legitimately say that they were essential in building the industry that had made the current players so wealthy.  Leaving all the older players without any pensions or medical plans from Major League Baseball looked like ingratitude toward the men who, quite literally, helped make the teams and players rich. The sport owed them, and it was right for them to help the veteran group…[The 1948-1979 group], by definition, were not stars; for the most part, they were…journeyman spare-part players who barely held on to their jobs…The fact that players with one day of service in the big leagues today qualify for a health insurance no more entitles the Moonlight Grahams of the Seventies to the same than the million dollar salaries of today’s second-string catchers entitles retired catchers who made $30,000 a year to insist on retroactive pay at today’s pay scales. Baseball players are paid what their rarified talents are worth, and those who create today’s multi-billion dollar industry are worth much more than the players who toiled before the big cable contracts and merchandising kicked in…The fair thing is for people to live with the deals they freely agreed to as conditions of their employment, and when a future employee negotiates a better deal for the work you once did, the fair thing is to say to him, “Good for you!” It would be generous and kind for the Major League teams and players to close some of the disparity in benefits; I hope they do it. Nevertheless, they have no obligation to do it, and it is not a breach of fairness if they don’t.” [You can read the entire essay here.]

The post attracted a strong comment from Craig Skok, one of the players in the 1948-1979 group. He is an excellent representative of the plight of this group, because he just barely missed the cut-off for full benefits. He wrote…

“…How can you readily dismiss the post 1947 group and their contributions? Were you involved in the player strikes of 1972 and 1974? These strikes were for free agency and were necessary to procure it. Many of the guys who were “locked out” of spring training in 1972, like myself , lost a full year of Major League experience and pension time because the ball clubs did not have time to evaluate their young talent and therefore basically went with the previous years team after the shortened spring. This happened again in 1974. There was real sacrifice there in playing time and major league service which as you know counts toward a pension. What about the guys who played but were “released” just short of their pension vesting time, this happened after 1947 all too often. In short, all Major League players had a valuable impact on the game during their prospective playing days and should be rewarded for that with a pension.”

Skok makes many good points. In particular, I should not have been so dismissive of the contributions made to sport and industry of baseball by players, like Skok, who were not stars.  All Major League players, past and present, are by definition remarkable, and I will never accomplish anything in my own career as rare or impressive as playing a single official Major League baseball game. I apologize to Skok and his colleagues for unintentionally implying that their own contributions to baseball were not important. They were.

Skok also is correct that his group of players sacrificed some of their own careers to benefit today’s players, in the labor actions halting play in 1972 and 1974. I should have mentioned that. His point bolsters mine, however, from an ethical point of view.

To a great extent, ethics involves individuals voluntarily engaging in conduct that benefits others—a family, a group, an organization, a nation, a world, a civilization—without assurances or expectations of personal gain. If all such conduct was regarded as a quid pro quo—“we do this, and thus the beneficiaries of our good deeds are obligated to reward us”—then the connective tissue of civilization and culture, which is cooperation, responsibility and trust, would break down. The player strikes for better benefits and working conditions required courage, sacrifice and commitment, and players participated because it was the right thing to do. Doing the right thing for others does not, and should not, create an ethical obligation of compensation. It creates the obligation of gratitude, but gratitude need not be expressed in material terms.

There is a distinction between feeling an obligation to reward someone, and having an obligation to reward them. The demands of Skok’s group (when you insist that you are entitled to a reward, that is the equivalent of a demand) ignore that distinction. I wrote that I hoped the MLB Players Association would reconsider and make the 1980 benefits retroactive, and I do. The association apparently does not feel that obligation, and ethically, they do not have an obligation. Eligibility cut-offs are always unlucky for those who just miss, and lucky for those who are barely over the line, but they are not unethical. The active players apparently felt a greater debt to the older players than they do to Skok’s group, and acted on it. Voluntarily giving something of value to one group does not, and should not, create an ethical obligation to do the same with other groups. This is an important principle, because if it were otherwise, there would be a great disincentive for individuals and groups to be generous or charitable to anyone. It is not unethical for me to contribute to the Wilderness Fund and not the Sierra Club, even though they may be equally deserving.

When the 1948-1979 players ask for charity and generosity, based on the fact that the industry can afford to change their eligibility to the post-1979 standards, and their having earned the gratitude of the current players through their Major League service and professional sacrifices, they have a cogent argument. The arguments that it is wrong to be generous to one group of players and not others, and that rightful acts for the benefit of others create an ethical obligation of compensation, are not valid.

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