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Tuesday, November 29, 2005
 
Sen. Arlen Specter: NFL and Eagles May Have Violated Antitrust Laws in Suspending Terrell Owens

Amy Worden and Larry Eichel of the Philadelphia Inquirer examine Senator Arlen Specter's remarks yesterday that the Senate Judiciary Committee's Antitrust Subcommittee may soon investigate whether the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles have committed an illegal restraint of trade by prohibiting Owens from playing and banning other teams from speaking with him. (Worden & Eichel, "Sparks from Specter in the T.O. Case," Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 29, 2005). This is not an idle threat, as Senator Specter is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he is also a diehard Eagles fan. So when he calls the Eagles' actions "vindicative and inappropriate," Eagles ownership and management likely pay attention.

Have the NFL and the Eagles violated antitrust laws? On one hand, the Eagles followed the their collectively-bargained right to suspend a player for "conduct detrimental to the team." And as we know, collectively-bargained language is accorded broad deference, and, for the most part, insulation from antitrust laws. That was the thrust of arbitrator Richard Bloch's decision last week to upheld the Eagles' right to suspend Owens and preclude him from talking with other teams.

On the other hand, how do we actually define the phrase "conduct detrimental to the team"? What are its limits? How specific must the conduct be? Is the phrase too vague or too conclusory for purposes of insulating it from antitrust scrutiny? Has Owens lack of specific misconduct failed to meet an objective standard of "conduct detrimental to the team"? If we don't define it, might teams have deleterious incentives to misuse it or threaten to misuse it?

Worden and Eichel interview three law professors for the story, including me. Here are our comments:
"As much as I hate to disagree with the esteemed senator, I don't see an antitrust claim here," said Matthew J. Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. "We're in the labor arena, not antitrust."

"To have an antitrust violation, you have a contract or conspiracy in restraint of trade," said Robert McCormick, a law professor at Michigan State University. "The Eagles would have to collude with the 31 other teams to make sure that no one would hire Terrell Owens. And we're not there yet."

Michael McCann, a sports-law expert at Mississippi College School of Law, said the ambiguity of the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement - in not specifying any detailed meaning of conduct "detrimental to the team" - might allow antitrust laws to apply.





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