Justice Is Served

May 26, 2010 11:20 PM

Loss for NFL should lead to loss for MLB, too


It was a call Wednesday that didn't go in favor of the National Football League, but could what happened to the NFL be a precursor of what might await Major League Baseball?

The latter can't take much comfort in how the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in American Needle Inc. v. National Football League.

In the case, NFL officials from commissioner Roger Goodell on down had banked on the U.S. Supreme Court, a court with a decidedly pro-business slant, to allow them to skirt antitrust laws, but the high court shoved aside that notion as easily as Albert Haynesworth does a 210-pound running back.

The justices didn't just reject that argument. Their decision was unanimous, a ruling that blocked any thought the NFL might have entertained of moving a giant step closer to the kind of antitrust protections Major League Baseball has enjoyed since 1922. 

"The NFL teams do not possess either the unitary decision-making quality or the single aggregation of economic power characteristic of independent action," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the high court. "Each of the teams is a substantial, independently owned, and independently managed business." 

Now, what this decision will mean for the NFL is uncertain. The particulars of the case that brought the league before the "court of last resort" have been sent back to a U.S. District Count to be argued afresh.

A victory in the lower court might allow the NFL to think wistfully about having the privileges the high court bestowed on baseball. Such a victory, however, doesn't seem likely.  

Which brings baseball back into the discussion. 

Why is it granted antitrust rights that no other league has? 

The ideals that led to those rights seem as outdated as the Model T, and those rights have been chipped away over the years. Yet Major League Baseball clings to vestiges of an era when sports held a more romanticized role in the lives of Americans. 

The sport was the national pastime. It isn't anymore. 

For baseball is no different than the NHL, the NBA or the NFL. Why MLB should remain exempt from certain antitrust restrictions when MLS and all the other professional leagues operate under rules that disadvantage them.

No one should shed a tear about those disadvantages. Most of those leagues has prospered nicely, even if they might have had fatter bottom lines had the courts granted them antitrust exemptions. 

The court's ruling in American Needle was about money or, more precisely, about naked greed. The justices signaled to the NFL -- and, undoubtedly, the NHL and NBA as well -- that in the world of merchandise, the league can't design its own rules. Rework overtime all it wants, but the league can't restrict trade in monopolistic ways.

In essence, the ruling denied the league's contention that it was a single entity, a distinction only Major League Baseball has among professional sports. It is a distinction worth millions to baseball, and it is a distinction that is, on its face, wholly un-American. 

Pro baseball has no more right to an antitrust exemption than Exxon-Mobil, Microsoft or Wal-mart, and the public should question why it still does. The league should operate under the same business principles and antitrust laws as other professional sports.

But that's hardly a consolation prize for Goodell and the NFL. They were tackled for a big loss in a place where they didn't want to lose. They will be heading back to a lower court, hopeful, however, that a federal judge there will rule narrowly on the issues in American Needle

Meantime, commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball should keep their eyes on the case. For what might (and should) await them is another challenge to their antitrust exemption. The rules of this millionaire's game should apply to MLB the same way it applies to the NFL and all other U.S. businesses.

MLB shouldn't get an intentional walk when everybody else has to stand at the plate and take their swings at 110-mph fastballs. 

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