Articles Posted in Sports and Entertainment Law

Baseball-Antitrust-Exemption-2-300x210

Author: Luke Hasskamp

This is the second of a series of articles examining some of the interesting intersections between the law and baseball, with a focus on baseball’s exemption from federal and state antitrust laws. (Though, like the first article, this one does not quite reach the antitrust issues, as the initial challenges were brought under contract law.)

The first article looked at some of the early conflict between professional baseball players and team owners of the National League, which largely originated from the owners’ adoption of the “reserve clause,” which effectively tied a player to a single team for the entirety of his career, subject to the team’s discretion (and ten-days’ notice). Naturally, this led to litigation, particularly as other leagues emerged that sought to compete with the National League. The National League sued several players who tried to jump to the Players League—and the players won resounding victories in those early cases, with courts refusing to find the one-sided contracts to be enforceable on the ground that they were indefinite agreements and/or lacked mutuality.

Thus, by the time the 1890 season ended—with the National League champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the American Association champion Louisville Colonels participating in a best-of-seven game “world” series that ended in a tie—it seemed that the reserve clause was doomed. But forces conspired to give the teams, yet again, the upper hand.

To begin, the Players League ended its first season as a financial failure, causing the League to disband. This relieved the National League of a major competitor. The National League received more good news following the 1891 season, when the American Association, another professional league, failed. This meant that, once again, there was only one professional league in town. Thus, even though the players had won important cases invalidating the reserve clause, they had nowhere else to play, which would remain the case for the next decade.

Things got a little more interesting in 1901 with the arrival of the American League, which emerged as a serious competitor. Indeed, the National League had instituted a per player salary cap of $2,400, while the American League offered salaries of up to $6,000, causing dozens of players to switch leagues.

One such player was Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, a star player for the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies. Indeed, Lajoie was one of the first superstars of the game and was highly sought by the upstart American League. (Indeed, he refused to take a bad photo.) Despite his contract with the National League, Lajoie signed with the new American League team in town: the Philadelphia Athletics (which was to be managed by Connie Mack, who remained the manager of the Athletics for an incredible 50 years—the longest-serving manager in Major League Baseball history—amassing records for wins (3,731), losses (3,948), and games managed (7,755)).

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Baseball-and-Reserve-Clause-300x207

Author: Luke Hasskamp

This is the first of a series of articles intended to address some of the interesting intersections between the law and baseball, particularly baseball’s curious exemption from federal and state antitrust laws. More generally, it’s about the struggle between team owners and players since the dawn of professional baseball, and some of the quirks to emerge along the way.

This article starts at the beginning with a fledgling set of teams in the National League in the late 19th century—with team owners trying to turn consistent profits and players beginning to emerge as stars, and the tension between the two.

The trouble started in 1879, when the owners of the teams in the National League agreed on the “reserve clause” which was a provision included in player contracts that effectively bound the player to his team for his entire career. (Here’s an example of such a reserve clause.)

At the time, most National League teams were losing money and faced bleak financial prospects. To curb expenses, the teams agreed on a strategy to keep salaries down: each team would be allowed to “reserve” up to five players for the following season. This meant that no other team could sign a reserved player unless he received permission to do so.

As expected, each team elected to reserve their five best players, i.e., their most expensive players. With no market competing for players’ services, team owners were able to suppress salaries for elite talent and increase profits. Indeed, just two seasons after the adoptions of the reserve clause, most teams had become profitable, the first time that had happened.

 Due to this success, the owners saw no reason to limit the reserve clause to the top five players. They steadily increased the reserve limit until, by 1887, a team was permitted to reserve its entire roster, 14 players at the time. 1887 is also the year that the reserve clause became an explicit provision in players’ contracts; until then, it had at first been a secret agreement between the owners and then, after it leaked, simply become a league rule that all players were required to abide by. Importantly (for the owners), the reserve clause crept beyond the National League into other competing leagues that would emerge during that time, including the American Association and the American League, which both agreed to honor National League’s reserve lists.

At this time, the contracts were decidedly one sided. Although teams effectively controlled a player for the entirety of his career, nothing bound the teams to their players, except for their contracts (and virtually all contracts had one-year terms). Any player could be traded or sold at any time, and they could be released on just 10-days’ notice.

John Montgomery Ward became an important early figure in challenges to baseball’s reserve clause. Known as Monte Ward during his playing days, he began his career at 19 as a pitcher for the Providence Grays. In 1879, he went 47–19 with 239 strikeouts and a 2.15 ERA, pitching 587 innings. The following season Ward went 39–24 with 230 strikeouts and a 1.74 ERA pitching 595.0 innings. Ward also has the distinction of pitching the second perfect game in professional history as well as the longest complete game shutout, going 18 innings in a 1-0 win over the Detroit Wolverines 1–0 on August 17, 1882, a record that will never be broken. (He also has a pretty epic baseball card.)

Following an injury to his pitching arm that, remarkably, was not attributed to his workload but to a mishap while sliding, Ward’s performance as a pitcher began to diminish, so the Grays sold him to the New York Gotham before the 1883 season (they were renamed the New York Giants in 1885.) The move was fortuitous for several reasons, including the fact that it enabled Ward to enroll at Columbia Law School, where he graduated in 1885.

Using his legal training, Ward organized and led the first labor union in professional sports, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. The principal goal of the Brotherhood was to raise player salaries, which had remained stagnant even though baseball’s popularity (and revenues) had risen considerably. A chief target of the Brotherhood’s effort was the reserve clause, which continued to suppress players’ salaries and limit their mobility.

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oscars-and-antitrust-300x228
Author: Aaron Gott

My morning routine usually begins with reading the news to keep up on current events. As an antitrust lawyer, I often find myself thinking about how stories that were deemed newsworthy for other reasons fail to recognize their often most troubling aspects: the antitrust concerns.

Last week, for example, the news was abuzz with Uber and Lyft drivers going “on strike” to protest their compensation from the companies. The drivers “banded together” in an effort to pressure the companies. Most might see this as a sort of unionization of the gig economy. But I saw it as an antitrust problem: ride referral drivers are independent contractors, so they are not, under well-established federal law, entitled to the union labor exemption from the antitrust laws. They are horizontal competitors who are agreeing to restrain trade. That sort of conduct is called a group boycott, and under these circumstances, it might be per se illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

Baseball Antitrust Exemption

Author: Jarod Bona

Baseball is special. How do we know that? Is it the fact that it has been declared America’s Pastime? Or is it the feelings we have when we smell the freshly cut grass on a sunny spring day? Or is it the acoustics of a wood bat striking a leather-wrapped baseball? The answer is that  we know that baseball is special because the US Supreme Court has told us so.

Over the course of ninety-two years, the Supreme Court has consistently affirmed and re-affirmed a special exemption from the antitrust laws for the “business of providing public baseball games for profit between clubs of professional baseball.” There is a state action exemption, an insurance exemption, a labor exemption, and a  . . . baseball exemption? That’s right. A baseball exemption from the federal antitrust laws.

The Ninth Circuit—in an opinion courtesy of Judge Alex Kozinski—just applied this exemption in City of San Jose v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, which rejected San Jose’s antitrust lawsuit challenging Major League Baseball’s “attempt to stymie” the relocation of the Oakland Athletics to San Jose, California.

Update: On October 6, 2015, the US Supreme Court, without comment, declined to hear this case. Because the Supreme Court rejects the vast majority of petitions for cert., I wouldn’t read too much into this. Of course, if at least four Justices had wanted to revisit the historical exemption, they could have done so.

You might also enjoy Luke Hasskamp’s article on Baseball and the Reserve Clause.

Why is There a Baseball Exemption from the Antitrust Laws?

In the 1920’s, the Supreme Court decided a case called Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, which held that the Sherman Act didn’t apply to the business of baseball because such “exhibitions” are purely state affairs. As Judge Kozinski explained, the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s decision reflected the “era’s soon-to-be-outmoded interpretation of the Commerce Clause.” In other words, back in the day, courts didn’t assume that almost every economic activity was within federal jurisdiction.

Thirty-years later in Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., the Supreme Court affirmed Federal Baseball on different grounds. The Court recognized that the Commerce Clause reasoning no longer applied, but observed that despite the Federal Baseball governing law that the federal antitrust laws don’t apply to baseball, Congress hasn’t legislated to the contrary. So it left the baseball exemption.

Finally, in 1972, the Supreme Court decided the Classic Antitrust Case of Curt Flood v. Kuhn, which is the famous baseball exemption case. The Court specifically addressed baseball’s reserve clause, which essentially prohibited free agency. When a player’s contract ended, the team still retained the player’s rights. Once again, the Supreme Court upheld the baseball exemption based upon Congress’ inaction.

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