NFL’s Supreme Court Smackdown

This Wednesday, the Supreme Court will decide whether antitrust laws apply to the National Football League. If the Court rules in the NFL’s favor, all sports leagues would win a huge victory. Team owners could unilaterally set salaries and the price of all merchandise, effectively controlling both players and coaches and most likely driving up the consumer prices.

Back in the ‘90s, NFL players won a major victory when antitrust laws were interpreted in a way that won them the freedom to sell their services as free agents. Until then, player salaries were capped and determined by team owners.

The agreement established in the ‘90s is set to expire in 2011 and a ruling in the NFL’s favor would bring about a return to the old way of doing business. The players’ union will likely plan more strikes in protest of a ruling in favor of team owners, depriving fans of the games they love.

NFL claims that while its member teams compete against each other, the league itself is exempt from antitrust legislation. Is that claim valid? Antitrust laws are clear when it comes to businesses, but sports leagues fall into a gray zone. The NFL is composed of 32 teams. These teams are independently owned and compete against each other. When it comes to recruiting players and coaches, teams undercut each other and bargain to form the best teams possible. In the realm of business, each team clamors for the attention of an excited sports audience. By definition, then, sports leagues seem to be contradictions to the understood notion of trusts.

It isn’t that simple, however. This case is part of a bigger game for team owners. If they win, they will have the freedom to do as they please without fear of laws meant to protect employees, players and fans.

American Needle, a company that was shut out of the sports team hat market after Reebok received an exclusive license to sell hats and caps with NFL team logos, brought the case in question. In the lower court, the NFL won the right to act as “a single entity.” The company appealed, but interestingly enough, the NFL is also encouraging the Supreme Court to hear the case. That is because the NFL has little to lose if they lose this case, but a broad ruling from the Supreme Court in its favor can give the league the freedom to throw off the remaining shackles of antitrust law.

If the Supreme Court rules that sports leagues are “single entities” and immune from antitrust laws “with respect to core venture functions,” as the NFL would like, then it will have the freedom to do everything from determine “where to locate its clubs” to dictating “the terms and conditions of player employment.”

This is a power grab on the part of the team owners, a way to regain what they lost in the ‘90s when players earned the right to treat themselves as free agents. There is no other reason for them to insist on the Supreme Court appeal after winning the appeal in district court.

It just so happens that the Supreme Court is very likely to rule in the NFL’s favor. Antitrust laws are old. In recent years, the Supreme Court has limited the application of these rules in modern cases. The Court does however have a history of ruling narrowly, especially in cases that would have a broad effect, such as this one.

Ultimately, while it can be very hard to predict which way the Court will go, the owners don’t have anything to lose. Regardless of the outcome, everyone else, from the merchandisers shut out of exclusive contracts to the fans forced to pay more for tickets, concessions and sports paraphernalia, to the players who will become not-so free agents, will lose.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year English major. He can be reached at