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Sunday, February 08, 2004

Analyzing the Opinion in Clarett Case: Putting aside the policy issues of the Clarett case (below), was the case rightly decided on the law? I have little knowledge of antitrust law, so I will defer to the experts on this one.

You can read the full opinion here, or just excerpts from the LA Times.

The key issue in the case is whether or not the draft eligibility rule falls under the league's collective bargaining agreement. If it does, then it is exempt from antitrust provisions through established common law that favors the union negotiations and labor law over anti-trust law. See CASE. To fall under the exception, the rule must be a mandatory subject of bargaining between employers and unions pertinent to "wages, hours, and other terms of employment." As the court noted, "Only agreements on these subjects (and intimately related subjects) are exempt from the antitrust laws."

The NFL argued that since the draft is the main avenue by which players enter the league, a rule pertaining to the draft had the needed intimate relation to "wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment." The judge disagreed, distinguishing three Second Circuit opinions pertaining to professional basketball and relied on by the NFL. In each of those opinions, the court reasoned, the player challenging the rule had already been drafted, and thus become a member of the league. In this case, however, the rule makes players such as Clarett "unemployable" (emphasis of the court). "Wages, hours, or working conditions affect only those who are employed or eligible for employment."

The court then added that the rule could not apply to those who were excluded from the bargaining unit. This argument proves a bit more troublesome, though, because established law states that collective bargaining agreements cover those employees who join after the agreement is signed. The court distinguishes this case by noting that individuals that are "categorically denied eligibility for employment" are not covered by the CBA. However, the court fails to note that Clarett is not categorically denied from employment in the NFL. Three years after the graduation of his high school class, he can join the league and thus benefit from the terms of the CBA, including the draft eligibility rule. No matter how you look at it, Clarett is a prospective employee of the NFL, and as the court states, "There is no dispute that collective bargaining agreements, and therefore the nonstatutory labor exemption, apply to both prospective and current employees."

Legal scholars have been divided over the court's opinion. Gary Roberts, the Director of Sports Law (note: sports law does not exist) at Tulane Law School, stated on the NFL Network, "I think the court's decision was horrible. I think this judge just sort of made it up as she went because she thought the rule was unfair and she made a number of legal rulings that are just flat out wrong." Roberts also indicated that he would be shocked if the ruling was upheld on appeal. Fordham Law professor Mark Conrad also seemed skeptical of the reasoning and said the case "would call for an appeal."

Other scholars, however, seemed to agree with the opinion. Mel Helitizer, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University called the NFL's rule a "restraint of trade" that had been exposed in the other professional sports leagues. Matt Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute, said that while he supported the NFL's rule in general, "applying the antitrust law, it's difficult to justify."

It appears that the appeal will turn on two key issues. One, does it matter that Clarett was only temporarily excluded from employment and that he was indeed a prospective employee? And two, does the rule cover "wages, benefits and other terms of employment"? While the NFL may not get the stay it needs to prevent Clarett from entering this draft, the league appears far from conceding the issue all together.