Articles Posted in Sports and Entertainment Law

https://www.theantitrustattorney.com/files/2021/06/Alston-v.-NCAA-Antitrust-300x200.jpg

Author:  Steven J. Cernak[1]

On June 21, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed lower court decisions and held that certain NCAA restrictions on educational benefits for student-athletes violated Sherman Act Section 1.  The unanimous opinion was a clear win for the plaintiff class and almost certainly will lead to big changes in college sports.

It was also a clear defeat for the NCAA. While the opinion (as the NCAA’s reaction emphasized) maintained the NCAA’s ability to prohibit non-educational benefits and define limits on educational ones, any such NCAA rules must be defended under a full antitrust rule of reason analysis, not a special deferential standard based on language from a 1984 Supreme Court case. Litigation on such issues is already in the lower courts and more can now be expected.

Justice Gorsuch’s unanimous opinion for the Court, however, contains numerous references, concepts, and phrases that will prove helpful to future antitrust defendants, especially those in joint ventures with competitors. The opinion is a reminder that any effort to aggressively change antitrust’s status quo will need to deal with a judiciary steeped in decades’ worth of precedent.  Below are some highlights of the opinion sure to be noted by future antitrust defendants.

American Express, Trinko Alive and Well 

The recent House Majority Report on antitrust issues in Big Tech, co-authored by recently confirmed FTC Commissioner Lina Khan, had several general recommendations. One of those recommendations was for Congress to overturn several Court antitrust opinions, including Ohio v. American Express (written by Justice Thomas) and Verizon v. Trinko (written by Justice Scalia). We covered the ramifications of such reversals here and here.

Apparently, the Court disagrees with that recommendation. American Express was cited at least seven times by the Court, both for when the rule of reason analysis should be used and the three-part burden-shifting process of such an analysis. In a heavily criticized part of the American Express opinion, the Court found that the rule of reason analysis needed to account for effects on both sides of a two-sided market. While Justice Gorsuch’s opinion here did not cite American Express for that proposition, it and the parties assumed that the NCAA could try to justify its restraints in the labor or input market with positive effects in the output market, further cementing the American Express analysis.

The opinion cites Trinko at least four times, usually for the proposition that judges should not impose remedies that attempt to “micromanage” a company’s business by setting prices and similar details. Another citation, however, is to Trinko’s admonition to courts to avoid “mistaken condemnations of legitimate business arrangements” that could chill the procompetitive conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect. This focus on “error costs” has been embedded in antitrust jurisprudence for decades but has come under attack in recent years from commentators who would prefer more aggressive antitrust enforcement. This unanimous opinion ignores that criticism.

Bork and Easterbrook

Many of today’s antitrust principles can be attributed to Chicago School theorists, including Robert Bork and Frank Easterbrook. Their writings, both as academics and appellate court judges, have remained influential, although both recently have come under withering attack.  Justice Gorsuch seems to remain a fan of both.

Bork’s opinion in Rothery Storage v. Atlas Van Lines is cited twice, once for the proposition that the reasonableness of some actions can be judged quickly and once that courts should not require businesses to use the least restrictive means for achieving legitimate purposes. Bork’s recently re-released The Antitrust Paradox is also quoted for the proposition that competitors in sports leagues must be allowed to reach some agreements, such as on number of players, in order to have any competitions at all.

The Supreme Court cites two of Easterbrook’s Seventh Circuit opinions. The Court cites Polk Bros. v. Forest City Enterprises for the proposition that a joint venture among firms without the ability to reduce output is unlikely to harm consumers. A page later, the Court uses Chicago Professional Sports v. NBA to explain that different restraints among joint venturers might require different depths of analysis to ascertain their effect on competition. Finally, the Court cites one of his law review articles to support judicial caution in summarily condemning business conduct until courts and economists have accumulated sufficient understanding of its likely competitive effect. Surprisingly, Easterbrook’s most famous article — The Limits of Antitrust — was not used in the discussion of the error-cost framework discussed above, despite continuing to be celebrated as one of the leading descriptions of the concept.

Other Quotable Quotes

In addition to the citations above, several other portions of the opinion are sure to be used by future antitrust defendants. In fact, on June 21 Prof. Randy Picker (@randypicker) put together a Letterman-like Top 10 List of Things that Defense Attorneys will Like in Alston tweet thread.  No arguments here with any item on Prof. Picker’s list but two groups of such quotes are worth highlighting.

Continue reading →

American Needle (Football)

Author: Jarod Bona

When you think about Sherman Act Section 1 antitrust cases (the ones involving conspiracies), you usually consider the question—often framed at the motion to dismiss stage as a Twombly inquiry—whether the defendants actually engaged in an antitrust conspiracy.

But, sometimes, the question is whether the defendants are, in fact, capable of conspiring together.

That isn’t a commentary on the intelligence or skills of any particular defendants, but a serious antitrust issue that can—in some instances—create complexity.

So far I’ve been somewhat opaque, so let me illustrate. Let’s say you want to sue a corporation under the antitrust laws, but can’t find another entity they’ve conspired with so you can invoke Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which requires a conspiracy or agreement). How about this: You allege that the corporation conspired with its President, Vice-President, and Treasurer to violate the antitrust laws. Can you do that?

Probably not. In the typical case, a corporation is not legally capable of conspiring with its own officers. The group is considered, for purposes of the antitrust laws, as a “single economic entity,” which is incapable of conspiring with itself. Of course, the situation is complicated if we aren’t talking about the typical corporate officers, but instead analyzing a case with a corporation and corporate agents (or in some cases, even employees) that are acting for their own self-interest and not as a true agent of the corporation. The question, often a complex one, will usually come down to whether there is sufficient separation of economic interests that the law can justify treating them as separate actors.

A lot of tricky issues can arise when dealing with companies and their subsidiaries as well. In the classic case, Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corporation, for example, the United States Supreme Court held that the coordinated activities of a parent and its wholly-owned subsidiary are a single enterprise (incapable of conspiring) for purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

Continue reading →

Golf-antitrust-premier-league-pga-300x199

Author: Luke Hasskamp

Any time a dominant market player takes aggressive steps in the face of competition, that can catch people’s eye, especially those attuned to antitrust issues. That reality is true for the PGA Tour and its response to reports of efforts to launch a competitor golf league—the Premier Golf League.

For professional golfers and their fans, a pretty significant story broke this week about an upstart golf league seeking to get off the ground. The long-rumored Premier Golf League, or PGL, resurfaced, with the promise of upending professional golf across the globe. The PGL looks to attract some stars of the game with substantial, guaranteed contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, and massive payouts for each event, with a reported season-long payout total of one billion dollars.

In response to news about the PGL, the PGA Tour has taken several steps. The Tour started by introducing a so-called “Player Impact Fund,” which would award $40 million in annual bonuses to the top 10 players considered to drive fan and sponsor engagement, even if they’re not consistently winning. Unlike most earnings on Tour, these bonus payments would not be directly tied to a player’s performance during tournaments. This response seems like a legitimate and pro-competitive way to respond to market competition.

Perhaps more interestingly, the PGA Tour has also taken other, more aggressive steps in response to this potential competition. Specifically, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan threatened the game’s top players with suspension or even permanent expulsion from the Tour if they sign on with a proposed Premier Golf League. The Tour has long required players to limit their participation in non-Tour events; indeed, it has required the Tour’s express permission. But this latest action has taken things to the next level.

Our antitrust ears perk up any time a company tells those associated with it that they’ll be permanently banned if they do business with a competitor. And it reminds us of parallels in the sports world, particularly with professional baseball. Indeed, baseball has a long history with antitrust and labor issues stemming from would-be competitors, such as bare-knuckle tactics, player suspensions, and extensive litigation, including multiple cases to reach the Supreme Court. We have detailed that saga in several articles:

Part 1: Baseball and the Reserve Clause.

Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (And Strike Out).

Part 3: Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court.

Part 4: Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption.

Part 5: Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

In short, for decades, professional baseball thwarted competition and suppressed salaries in the face of direct antitrust challenges by preventing player free agency and punishing (i.e., banning) players who opted to play for other leagues. Baseball, of course, at least for now, has an exemption from antitrust liability.

Moreover, not only is it easy to argue that the PGA Tour is a monopoly whose conduct might implicate Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but the PGA Tour also has relationships with other entities that could implicate Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which bars anticompetitive agreements.

To begin, the PGA Tour recently launched a “Strategic Alliance” with the European Tour, meant to enhance “collaboration on global scheduling, prize money and playing privileges for both tours’ memberships.” There are many pro-competitive reasons for such as alliance, but there is also no question that the potential competition from the Premier Golf League was a significant factor.

Moreover, the PGA Tour has relationships with many key market actors, including sponsors, media companies, and other interests that could further complicate these issues. For example, what if sponsors withdraw from endorsement deals with a player because of his decision to join the PGL? Does this suggest an unlawful group boycott?

Relatedly, there are key golf events—such as golf’s four annual majors and the Ryder Cup—that are not explicitly run by the PGA Tour but are tied to performance in Tour events. Indeed, success on the PGA and European Tours is the primary way players qualify for major events. What if those events agree not to allow PGL players to qualify? Or even more blatantly, what if those events revoke invitations to players who have already qualified (for example, winners of the Masters, Open Championship, and PGA Championship receive lifetime invitations)?

Continue reading →

Antitrust-Music-Rock-Bands-300x200

Author: Jon Cieslak

Many guitarists and rock music fans have recently gotten to know Rick Beato. Beato is a musician, music producer, and, most recently, a YouTube personality. He regularly produces YouTube videos about a variety of music topics, headlined by his most well-known series, What Makes This Song Great?, which breaks down and discusses popular songs. He also occasionally discusses legal issues, particularly copyright law and fair use, as he has had videos removed from his YouTube channel.

In one video, Beato touches on antitrust law in his discussion of what he refers to as the Y2K curse. The Y2K curse refers to his observation that a large number of successful rock bands from the 1990s—Beato gives twenty eight examples, including Live, Cake, Counting Crows, Bush, Blur, Goo Goo Dolls, and Barenaked Ladies—“did nothing after the year 2000.” This is not because they stopped releasing albums; rather, their releases in the 2000s did not have the same commercial success. He admits that this was not a universal problem, as bands such as Foo Fighters, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Weezer were able to maintain their success.

So why did so many (but not all) rock bands suffer from the Y2K curse? Beato attributes much of it to a change in radio formats indirectly prompted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to the FCC, the Act’s goal was “to let anyone enter any communications business—to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” But what happened in practice was the drastic increase in the consolidation of media ownership, particularly in radio stations. As Beato explains, in 1983, 90% of American media was controlled by fifty companies. By 2011, 90% of American media was controlled by just six companies (GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS). This consolidated media ownership resulted in “consolidated playlists” with far fewer “gatekeepers”—who are frequently now market researchers instead of DJs—deciding what music would be played on the radio. That smaller number of corporate gatekeepers, all concerned about offending the smallest number of potential listeners, resulted in less variety and eliminated the main outlet for many popular bands from the 1990s.

Assuming this is all true, would antitrust law provide a remedy for the loss of musical variety on the radio? After all, the goal of antitrust law is to prevent the ill effects of reduced competition.

Probably not. Antitrust law most likely would not provide a remedy because it generally does not recognize the loss of variety—without some associated detrimental effect on competition—as a cognizable anticompetitive harm.

This recalls an interesting debate among antitrust scholars about what “the primary concern of antitrust law” should be. Continental T.V., Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., 433 U.S. 36, 51 n.19 (1977). The prevailing view—which the Supreme Court spurred with its Continental T.V. decision—is that federal antitrust laws should promote economic welfare (frequently referred to as consumer welfare) over other goals. As a leading antitrust treatise says, “economic concerns have generally dominated antitrust policy and trumped competing ‘populist’ concerns.” 1 PHILLIP E. AREEDA & HERBERT HOVENKAMP, ANTITRUST LAW ¶ 110 (5th ed. 2020). While the Supreme Court has never formally adopted the economic welfare standard—or any standard, for that matter—regulators, litigants, and courts frequently focus on price effects when evaluating alleged anticompetitive conduct. To be sure, those price effects should be based on quality-adjusted prices—i.e. prices that consider nonprice elements of a product that affect consumer preferences such as color, style, or brand reputation—but the economic welfare standard does not protect variety for variety’s sake.

Returning to Beato’s Y2K curse, application of the economic welfare standard would likely render antitrust law powerless to remedy the curse’s effects. The consolidation of media ownership and corresponding streamlining of radio playlists did not have the most common hallmarks of anticompetitive harm that courts usually consider. Prices for radio broadcasts did not go up. There was no substantial reduction in output of radio broadcasts. So unless a court was willing to find that the quality of radio broadcasts went down—while I would argue that Counting Crows are better than Limp Bizkit, I would not expect a court to take up the issue—it seems there was no loss of economic welfare and therefore no antitrust claim.

Not all antitrust scholars think this is the right result. Some have argued that the economic welfare standard is lacking precisely because it does a poor job of addressing nonprice competition. They have argued for a “consumer choice” standard instead of economic welfare, defined as business conduct “that harmfully and significantly limits the range of choices that the free market, absent the restraints being challenged, would have provided.” Neil W. Averitt & Robert H. Lande, Using the “Consumer Choice” Approach to Antitrust Law, 74 ANTITRUST L.J. 175, 184 (2007). If applied, the consumer choice standard would be more likely to provide a remedy for the Y2K curse.

Regulators and courts do sometimes consider diminished choices as indicative of anticompetitive activity. For example, in Associated Gen. Contractors v. Cal. State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 528 (1983), the Supreme Court held that “[c]oercive activity that prevents its victims from making free choices between market alternatives is inherently destructive of competitive conditions.” In Realcomp II, Ltd. v. FTC, 635 F.3d 815 (6th Cir. 2011), the Sixth Circuit upheld an FTC decision finding that certain policies violated the antitrust laws when they “narrow[ed] consumer choice” and “hinder[ed] the competitive process” without examining price effects.

Continue reading →

Paramount-Antitrust-Consent-Decrees-Department-of-Justice-300x237

Author: Steven Madoff

Steven Madoff was an Executive Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Paramount Pictures Corporation from 1997-2006.

The recent announcement by the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice that it is planning to terminate the 70-year-old Paramount Consent Decrees leads to reflection on how culture, business models, the law, and technology intersect and impact one another.

The history of the motion picture business resonates with the evolution (and sometimes revolution) of technology, the industry’s adaptation of its business models to respond to these changes in technology and the impact of these changes and adaptations to cultural transitions and transformations.

Virtually from its birth in the early 20th century, the motion picture industry attracted the scrutiny of governmental regulators. As early as the 1920’s, the U.S. Justice Department started looking into the trade practices and dominant market share of the Hollywood studios.

The Studio System

In the early 1930’s, the Justice Department found that the major studios were vertically-integrated monopolies that produced the motion pictures, employed the talent (directors, writers, actors) under long-term exclusive contracts, distributed the motion pictures and also owned or controlled many of the theaters that exhibited the movies. This was sometimes called the “studio system.”

Particularly troubling were the studios’ practices of block booking and blind bidding. Block booking is the practice of licensing one feature film or group of feature films on the condition that the licensee-exhibitor will also license another feature film or group of feature films released by the same distributor. Block booking prevents customers from bidding for individual feature films on their own merits. Blind bidding or blind selling is the practice whereby a distributor licenses a feature film before the exhibitor is afforded an opportunity to view it. These practices were particularly onerous when applied against independent theater owners not owned or affiliated with the studio-distributor.

It seemed like the time had come for the government to force the studios to divest their ownership of the exhibition side of the business. But the Depression intervened and the studios convinced President Roosevelt that the country needed a strong studio system to supply movie entertainment to the populous as a relief from tough economic times. President Roosevelt therefore delayed any action requiring the studios to divest their theaters under the goals of the National Industrial Recovery Act.

The Paramount Consent Decrees

But, by 1940, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the studios alleging violations of Sherman 1 and 2—restraint of trade and monopolization. The claims were made against what were then called the Big Five Studios, all of which produced, distributed and exhibited films (MGM, Paramount, RKO, Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros.) and what were called the Little Three studios, which produced and distributed films but did not exhibit them (Columbia, United Arts and Universal).

At the time, Paramount was the largest studio and exhibitor and was first-named in the lawsuit, and so in 1940 when the studios reached a settlement with the Department of Justice, the resulting arrangement became known as the Paramount Consent Decrees.

As part of the Consent Decrees, the Studios were not required to divest their ownership in theaters; however, block booking was dramatically cut back (e.g., no tying of short subjects to feature films and no “packages” in excess of five feature films) and blind bidding was prohibited. The parties agreed to a 3-year period for the Consent Decrees during which the Department of Justice would monitor compliance by the Studios.

By 1946, however, the Department of Justice had determined the Studios were not in compliance and brought the case back to the Federal District Court.  After the trial, the Court ruled that the Studios could no longer engage in block booking, but did not require them to divest their ownership in theaters, which the Department of Justice had asked for. Both parties appealed the case, which eventually reached the US Supreme Court.

In a 7-1 decision, written by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court found, among other things, that block booking was a per se violation of Sherman 1 and in remanding the case to the District Court recommended that the Studios be ordered to divest their ownership in theaters. But before the District Court rendered a decision on whether the Studios should divest their theaters, one of the Big Five Studio defendants, RKO Pictures (then controlled by Howard Hughes) decided to sell its theaters. After that, another Big Five Studio defendant, Paramount, sold its theaters.

Continue reading →

Belgium-Cable-Company-Antitrust-and-Competition-300x170
Author: Steven Madoff

If you are an in-house counsel, your company colleagues may, unfortunately, think of your group as the “business interference” department. But, if you are lucky, an opportunity to create a profit-center for your company may present itself. You just have to recognize it.

Early in my entertainment-law career, we were fortunate to see one of these rare opportunities. This is that story.

Hollywood-Entertainment-Antitrust-300x212

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust lawyer, I find it interesting to see the inner workings of different types of markets—how people and companies buy and sell things. And the entertainment industry is one of the more fascinating ones.

The entertainment industry includes an interesting mix of concentrated players at various levels of production and distribution, often vertically integrated. Streaming services like Netflix have brought on changes that the coronavirus pandemic will likely accelerate.

Indeed, the federal government is even ending the old Paramount Antitrust Consent Decree, which governed the motion-picture industry for decades. You can read about that from our attorney, Steven Madoff, who was a top-level lawyer for Paramount for years, and an expert (literally) in the entertainment and media industry.

If the entertainment market or Hollywood itself interests you, there is a federal antitrust case in the Central District of California that you should follow: William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, LLC. v. Writers Guild of America, West, Inc.

This is a lawsuit by the major Hollywood agencies against the Writers’ unions, along with a counterclaim by the Writers’ union against the agencies. Labor unions, of course, create some unique antitrust issues, which you can read about here.

On April 27, 2020, the Court granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss by the agencies.

What I found interesting about this case, among other items, is that it attacks a practice developed by Michael Ovitz and his Creative Artists Agency firm called “packaging.”

Before I dig into packaging, I have to recommend that you read Michael Ovitz’s autobiography: Who is Michael Ovitz? In his book, he is open about his successes and excesses. If you are building a professional services firm, like I am, you will particularly appreciate riding along as Michael Ovitz builds a talent agency that changes the way business is done in Hollywood. You hear some “inside baseball” about Hollywood and learn how to build a business from scratch, all at once. Indeed, you learn how to change an industry. Seriously, it’s a good read.

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?_encoding=UTF8&ASIN=1591845548&Format=_SL250_&ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=suchealif01-20&language=en_UShttps://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=suchealif01-20&language=en_US&l=li3&o=1&a=1591845548

Back to “Packaging.” Instead of letting the studios take the lead in building movie or television projects and hiring the writers, actors, and directors that the agencies represented, the agencies would create their own project proposals for the studios. Not surprisingly, in doing so, they would “package” together a group of people, in different roles and positions, that they represent.

As part of the cost of this packaging service, the talent agencies would receive a fee from the studio. Before packaging, talent agencies were compensated by commissions as a percentage of their clients’ compensation.

The writer unions asserted that these packaging services harmed both writers and the guilds themselves and created conflict of interests for the agencies between their writer-clients and the production studios.

The complaint also alleged that the talent agencies price-fix the fees for these packages and exchange competitive sensitive information with each other about their packaging fee practices.

I won’t get into all the details here—my purpose is merely to whet your appetite to follow the case—but the writer guilds took certain actions that the talent agencies didn’t like, who then took their own actions, and eventually they all sued each other, leaving a California federal judge to sort it out.

As I mentioned above, the Court issued a motion to dismiss ruling, which allowed some claims, while dismissing others. I am not going to go into the details, but I will point out one interesting aspect of the ruling: The Court dismissed the federal antitrust price-fixing claims for lack of standing because the injured parties didn’t participate in the market that was competitively harmed. But the Court allowed a price-fixing claim under the same facts to go forward under the California antitrust statute—the Cartwright Act—because this statute doesn’t have the more restrictive definition of antitrust standing that the federal antitrust laws have.

For antitrust attorneys, this is particularly interesting because in most cases in which a plaintiff includes both federal and state antitrust claims, they rise and fall together. Here, the California antitrust claims (under the Cartwright Act) survived while the federal ones fell.

Continue reading →

Curt-Flood-Antitrust-and-the-Supreme-Court-300x225

Author: Luke Hasskamp

This article—the fifth in a series—addresses some of the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Toolson v. New York Yankees, in particular the litigation involving Curt Flood that ultimately led to the free agency era of professional baseball.

You can find the other parts to this series below:

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 1: The Origins of the Reserve Clause

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (and Strike Out)

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 3: Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 4: Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

Curt Flood takes on baseball

Curt Flood was immensely important in baseball’s labor movement, serving as the plaintiff in the last baseball lawsuit to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and helping to usher in the current “free agency” era of baseball. He was also a star player, spending 15 years in the major leagues with the Cincinnati Red(leg)s, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Washington Senators. He was a three-time All Star, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, and retired with a .293 batting average.

After twelve seasons in St. Louis, on October 7, 1969, the Cardinals traded Flood and several other players, including Tim McCarver, to the Philadelphia Phillies. Yet, Flood, who was still near the peak of his playing years, had no interest in going, citing Philadelphia’s terrible record, dilapidated stadium, and racist fans, at least in Flood’s eyes.

Flood refused to report to Philadelphia and sent a strongly-worded letter to baseball’s commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, noting that he was not “a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood added his belief that “any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”

Flood’s letter to Kuhn fell on deaf ears, and he filed suit against the League in the Southern District of New York, alleging that baseball’s reserve clause violated antitrust law. Flood, who was then making $90,000 per season, sought $1 million in damages. Flood retained former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who agreed to handle the matter without charge. Flood knew that the lawsuit, which could potentially (and did) take years, would effectively end his playing career.

Several former players testified at trial on behalf of Flood, including Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, as well as Bill Veeck, renegade owner of the Chicago White Sox. No current players testified in favor of Flood, however. Following a ten-week bench trial, the district court ruled against Flood and in favor Major League Baseball, finding that the reserve clause had beneficial aspects for the game and its players.

Flood appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit, which affirmed the district court, holding that Federal Baseball and Toolson were binding precedent and, thus, Major League Baseball was not subject to the Sherman Act because baseball did not constitute interstate commerce. The Second Circuit added that baseball was “so uniquely interstate commerce” as the league extended over many states that the “consequent extra-territorial effect of necessary compliance” with multiple state antitrust laws would be “far reaching.” Accordingly, federal law pre-empted the application of state antitrust laws.

Continue reading →

Baseball-and-Antitrust-part-4-300x179

Author: Luke Hasskamp

This article—the fourth in a series—addresses some of the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, where the Court unanimously held that federal antitrust laws did not apply to professional baseball. This includes the “birth” of baseball’s antitrust exemption in the Supreme Court’s 1953 decision in Toolson v. New York Yankees.

You can find the other parts to this series below:

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 1: The Origins of the Reserve Clause

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (and Strike Out)

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 3: Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 5: Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

The evolution of the Commerce Clause

It seems safe to say that it is widely known that baseball is exempt from antitrust laws. But that exemption did not arise in the Court’s 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball. Instead, there, the Court had concluded that the Sherman Act did not apply to baseball at all—because baseball was not a form of interstate commerce. This is an important distinction.

The Sherman Act makes it unlawful to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States . . . .” The reason Congress included “among the several States” in the statute is because its authority to enact the Sherman Act flowed from Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Commerce Clause.

Specifically, the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states . . . .” If the conduct at issue did not affect commerce “among the several states,” Congress had no authority to regulate it. Thus, because the Court determined that baseball did not affect interstate commerce, Congress had no power to subject it to antitrust scrutiny.

The Federal Baseball decision has been widely criticized, both at the time and today. But when considered in context, it is somewhat understandable. For starters, the game in the 1920s was obviously much different than the multi-billion-dollar industry that we know today. There were fewer teams, lower revenues, and games were not yet watched on television—the first televised Major League Baseball game would occur on August 26, 1939, a doubleheader played at Ebbets Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds.

Perhaps an even more understandable explanation for the Federal Baseball outcome was the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause at the time and, specifically, its definition of interstate commerce, which was narrower than it is today.

Federal Baseball was decided during the Lochner era, which encompassed the three decades following the Supreme Court’s 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905). During this period, the Court struck down a number of federal and state laws relating to labor and working conditions, as the Court took a narrow view of states’ police powers and Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause.

The Lochner era came to an end beginning in 1937, with a series of decisions from the Court upholding several federal and state statutes in this realm, and, importantly, recognizing broader grounds upon which the Commerce Clause could be used to regulate state activity. Instead of viewing the Commerce Clause as a limitation on congressional authority, it now marked one of the most effective means by which Congress could expand its regulatory reach. The narrow definition of interstate commerce was tossed out and activity was now viewed as commerce if it had a “substantial economic effect” on interstate commerce.

Baseball’s deft touch

The late 1930s to the 1950s marked an era of strategic litigation, settlements, and lobbying by baseball. With this expansion of the Commerce Clause, many predicted that it would not be long before the Supreme Court overruled Federal Baseball. Accordingly, baseball sought to avoid legal challenges that would give the Supreme Court an opportunity to do so, and it also worked to negotiate concerns in Congress that led some members to call for legislation clarifying that the Sherman Act should apply to baseball.

An interesting example of the threat faced by professional baseball, and its strategic response to it, arose from the emergence of professional baseball in Mexico soon after World War II. To attract top talent, the Mexican league offered lucrative salaries more than double what players were making in the U.S., causing several players to abandon their contracts and play south of the border. One such player was Danny Gardella, who had been offered $4,500 to play for the New York Giants but $10,000 to play in Mexico for the 1947 season. (The Mexican League was owned by Jorge Pasquel, another colorful character in the long roster of colorful characters in professional baseball, who allegedly used campaigned funds siphoned from the Mexican presidential election to pay for the substantial salaries.)

Perhaps as expected, Major League Baseball was not pleased with the defections, and Commissioner Happy Chandler banned the defecting players for five years, a remarkable penalty considering such strict penalties had only been imposed for violations that impugned the integrity of the game itself, such as gambling or cheating on games. When Gardella returned to the U.S. after the 1947 season—the year in Mexico had not been a success, especially for the Mexican league—he was unable to find a team willing to take him. Thus, he sued in federal court in New York.

The district court granted Major League Baseball’s motion to dismiss. The court recognized that Federal Baseball appeared to rest on a shaky foundation, but it also recognized that it was not its place to overturn the decision—the authority rested with the Supreme Court. Gardella appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was heard by Chief Judge Learned Hand, Judge Harrie Chase, and Judge Jerome Frank.

Continue reading →

baseball-and-antitrust-300x117

Author: Luke Hasskamp

This article—the third in a series—focuses on the Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, in which the Court unanimously held that federal antitrust laws did not apply to professional baseball. It is a curious decision, indeed, preceded by two prior decisions that helped to set the table.

Despite the focus of this series of articles on baseball’s unusual treatment under the antitrust laws, the first two articles did not actually address antitrust law. Instead, the focus was, primarily, contract law. Despite the clear anticompetitive implications of baseball’s reserve clause, which owners used to tie players to a team in perpetuity and to suppress player salaries, the initial challenges to these provisions were based on the law of contracts. And the initial lawsuits did not involve affirmative litigation brought by players but were instead brought by the owners, with the players raising these arguments in their defense.

Now the stage was set for the antitrust laws to enter the picture full force, and not just as a shield to protect players from teams’ requests for injunctions, but also as a sword to affirmatively attack professional baseball as an unlawful trust.

You can find the other parts to this series below:

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 1: The Origins of the Reserve Clause

Baseball and the Antitrust laws Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (and Strike Out)

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 4: Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 5: Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

The antitrust laws and baseball finally intersect: the Hal Chase case

The first antitrust baseball case fully litigated on the merits was American League Baseball Club v. Chase, 149 N.Y.S. 6 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1914), a dispute involving Hal Chase, a star first baseman who moved from the Chicago White Sox of the American League to the Buffalo Buff-Feds of the Federal League.

The suit was brought in New York by the White Sox, who sought to enjoin Chase from playing for Buffalo. At the conclusion of the matter, Judge Bissell rejected Chase’s “novel argument . . . presented with much earnestness” that baseball violated federal antitrust laws. The Sherman Act makes it unlawful to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States . . . .” Judge Bissell had no doubt that baseball was a monopoly, but he concluded that it was not involved in interstate trade or commerce. Instead, he reasoned: “Baseball is an amusement, a sport, a game that . . . is not a commodity or an article of merchandise subject to the regulation of congress . . . .” (Congress is constrained by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the connection to interstate commerce was essential. If baseball did not affect interstate commerce, Congress had no power to regulate it.)

Interestingly, Judge Bissell did rule that baseball had violated New York state law, meaning that the preliminary injunction initially granted could no longer be maintained. And his reasoning suggested that he also would have found baseball to have violated federal antitrust laws had it affected interstate commerce:

“A court of equity insisting that ‘he who comes into equity must come with clean hands’ will not lend its aid to promote an unconscionable transaction of the character which the plaintiff is endeavoring to maintain and strengthen by its application for this injunction. The court will not assist in enforcing an agreement which is a part of a general plan having for its object the maintenance of a monopoly, interference with the personal liberty of a citizen and the control of his free right to labor wherever and for whom he pleases; and will not extend its aid to further the purposes and practices of an unlawful combination, by restraining the defendant from working for any one but the plaintiff.”

Thus, with his legal victory, Chase was able to play with Buffalo for 1914 and 1915. While it was not a devastating blow for organized baseball—because “the question of the dissolution of this combination on the ground of its illegality” was not before the court—it must have seemed like an ominous conclusion to the ruling.

Chase ended up having a remarkable career for several reasons. Many players, including Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, considered him the best first baseman ever, and he is sometimes considered the first true star of the franchise that would eventually become the New York Yankees. But Chase was also ultimately exposed as a notorious cheater, betting extensively on games and paying and receiving money to fix games. Indeed, he was indicted as part of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal (though his role is disputed), but the State of California refused to extradite him due to a problem with the arrest warrant. He was ultimately blackballed from professional baseball and spent his remaining years on the west coast.

The Federal League takes on Organized Baseball: Round 1

In 1913, the Federal League emerged as a serious competitor to the National and American Leagues. And it intended to do so in court, as well as on the field, where it would wield the threat of a serious antitrust challenge. Indeed, in January 2015, the Federal League finally filed its affirmative suit against the National and American Leagues in federal court in Illinois, alleging that they amounted to a combination in violation of federal and state antitrust laws.

Continue reading →

Contact Information