NFL Set To Blow Up Antitrust Actions, Eliminate Free Agency, Steal Your Baby

In the future, people will wear aluminum foil and take personal helicopters to work. They will travel on beams of light. And maybe sport as Americans know it will be irrevocably changed. Good news for fans of aluminum foil and beams of light, but crappy news for LeBron James and the Knicks: the future is next year. Maybe.
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↵That's when the Supreme Court will hear an anti-trust lawsuit filed against the NFL by American Needle, Inc., a maker of hats and whatnot. ANI did the American thing after the NFL terminated its relationship with them in favor of an exclusive relationship with Reebok: sue. According to Lester Munson at ESPN, they lost because zillions of other companies have filed near-identical lawsuits and they've all lost, too. They appealed to the Supreme Court, because … well, they hate money. The ANI case seemed like settled law, and there was little chance the court would pick it up. It was a waste of time. ↵

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↵Then this happened: ↵

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↵⇥…in a stunning development, the NFL told the Supreme Court it endorsed American Needle's request for a hearing and a decision. The league's attorneys announced, in a remarkable understatement, that they "are taking the unusual step of supporting" American Needle's effort to have the case reviewed at the highest level. ↵
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↵Hello. The NFL is tired of fending off lawsuits from every Tom, Dick and Harry with a crochet needle and an axe to grind. So hear the case the Supreme Court shall, despite trepidation from the Obama administration. ↵

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↵Doom? Eh. The Munson article above alternates between sober assessments of the situation at hand and WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE hand-waving. Munson makes the upcoming Supreme Court decision sound like the end of time; let's grab the single-sentence-paragraph-laden wrap-up to demonstrate: ↵

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↵⇥If the NFL can find five votes for its single-entity concept, it will transform the industry. ↵⇥
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↵⇥Leagues will enjoy unfettered monopoly powers. ↵⇥
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↵⇥Salaries for players and coaches will drop. ↵⇥
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↵⇥Free agency will wither away. ↵⇥
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↵⇥Sponsors will pay more. ↵⇥
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↵⇥Fans will pay more for tickets, television and Internet broadcasts and for paraphernalia. ↵⇥
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↵⇥And owners' profits will soar. ↵
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↵Did that set off anyone else's melodrama sensors? Maybe it's the Hemingway approach to writing, or maybe it's what seems like a misunderstanding of the economics of the thing—the NFL and other pro sports leagues already auction off television packages as collectives, and fans are already bearing the full brunt of what the market will permit. But whatever it is, the above doomsday scenario is unconvincing. ↵

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↵Yes, there are many concerned quotes from players' union reps. They are mildly biased in the same way North Korean state newspapers are mildly biased. There's also one from an Indiana professor who claims the case "could easily turn out to be the most significant sports law decision ever," too, but what leaps out there is "could"—as in, could if the Supreme Court offers the most NFL-friendly decision imaginable. Surely there's a middle ground between an antitrust Armageddon asteroid and nothing whatsoever. If there isn't, someone call Ben Affleck. ↵

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↵Players unions still have the ability to strike, and will strike like mofos if sports leagues attempt to take drastic measures like slotting LeBron James into a 200k contract and preventing him from leaving Cleveland, as Munson suggests will happen at the start of the article. Fans are already being bled as dry as the market will permit. ↵

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↵Anyway, all this assumes the NFL wins the case, and that the Supreme Court's desire to hear the case can only result in a negative outcome. The former is not assured and the latter is definitely incorrect. Law professor Mark Edelman has an excellent post on the case at his blog Above The Law that argues a point of view not covered in the Munson piece: ↵

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↵⇥Despite past courts' reluctance to define the NFL as a single entity, the Seventh Circuit in American Needle took the different position, holding that the NFL's joint licensing practices were exempt from antitrust review. At the district court level, Judge Moran held that the NFL clubs morphed from a collection of separate businesses into a single entity by jointly licensing their trademarks for many years through a subsidiary, NFL Properties. Then, on appeal, a unanimous Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the single-entity status of sports leagues "should be addressed not only one league at a time, but also one facet of a league at a time." ↵
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↵The reason the NFL wants to take the case to the Supreme Court is that two lower courts have gone against longstanding precedent—this gambit has been shot down seven (!) times already—that the NFL hates, and now they want to take a shot at the Supreme Court confirming it. "Stunning" the decision is not. Edelman's post actually criticizes the Obama administration's brief proposing that the Supreme Court ignore the case by arguing that other sports leagues are seizing on the ANI precedent and confusing the case law on the subject. ↵

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↵If anything, the upcoming case will be an opportunity for Supreme Court to reverse a decision that promises to muck up lawsuits that would give leagues some of the foul powers Munson ascribes to them above. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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