The NFL may have won a small victory when Minnesota District Court Judge Susan Nelson was assigned (and accepted) the April 6 antitrust hearing that may deem the current lockout illegal instead of longtime league adversary David Doty, but there are political storm clouds brewing for the league that could have a far greater impact. On Monday, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) made a statement saying that he will seek to overturn the NFL's antitrust exemption relating to the league's broadcast deals. Representative Conyers' statement read, in part, as follows:
I will be introducing legislation to repeal the broadcast television antitrust exemption with regard to professional football. We are taking this action for several reasons:
First, a recent court decision highlighted the potential for abuse of these specially protected television contract negotiations in the football context. A federal judge in Minnesota found that the league manipulated its broadcast contracts to build up a lockout fund and gain leverage against the players. Judge Doty found this was done in bad faith, and wrote that "the NFL undertook contract renegotiations to advance its own interests and harm the interests of the players."
Second, the congressionally created antitrust exemption, dating from 1961, is a specially granted anomaly. No other business benefits from an antitrust exemption for television negotiations. Most professional sports do not have such an exemption — not soccer, not tennis, and not golf. And neither do any amateur sports — not the Olympics, not college football and not college basketball.
Third, at a time when the economy is struggling and the NFL has chosen to lock out its players, it is particularly inappropriate to allow the league to benefit from a special antitrust exemption. The lockout has been estimated to take at least $5.1 billion out of local economies around the nation.
Finally, there is a long line of precedents for Congress in general and the House Judiciary Committee in particular taking action in the wake of a professional sports work stoppage. In 1994, following the baseball strike, the Judiciary Committee under Chairman Brooks held hearings and passed legislation partially repealing baseball's antitrust exemption, which culminated four years later in the enaction of the Curt Flood Act. In 1996, after the Browns left Cleveland, the Committee, under Chairman Hyde, again considered legislation and held antitrust hearings.
In 2001, under Chairman Sensenbrenner, after Major League Baseball announced the possible contraction and elimination of the Minnesota Twins franchise, we conducted hearings on antitrust legislation that I introduced. And in the last several years, as committee chairman I led a extensive investigation into concussions and traumatic brain injuries that resulted in significant improvements to NFL policies in this critical area.
In other words, Conyers has a long history of asserting influence when sports leagues or teams set things up on the wrong side of the law. A few days ago, I wrote that the language on the Doty appeal decision on the league's lockout insurance machinations could further affect the NFL's stand as an entity with antitrust protection.
I thought the effects might turn on the owners when it came to the specific ability to argue the legality of the lockout, but to lose the antitrust exemption altogether could be a major blow to the NFL in this case and future events ... and leave the league with far bigger problems than a lockout.
You see, Representative Conyers isn't the only politician who believes that the NFL is in the wrong; Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has already opined that the NFL should open its books, and that was before the Doty appeal ruling, when the league was found to have acted in bad faith in its fiduciary duty to the players in the negotiation of television contracts.
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