Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
The All American Football League and Its College Degree Eligibility Rule
I've received e-mails from several readers about the All American Football League, a professional football league that will begin operations in the spring of 2008, feature between six to eight teams in the southeast, and pay players around $70,000 to $75,000 a season.
The AAFL, as it is called, was scheduled to begin operations this year, but was pushed back till next year. Wisely, the league does not intend to compete with the NFL, as AAFL games will be played in the spring, during the NFL's off season. Along those lines, the AAFL seeks to provide consumers with an otherwise unavailable product--outdoor professional football in the spring. The league also aspires to develop players to the point where they can seek employment in the NFL, particularly now that NFL has shut down its own developmental league, NFL Europa. The AAFL will also try to capitalize on local rivalries, with players assigned to teams based on where they played in college--so a player who starred at the University of Southern Mississippi, for instance, would be assigned to the Mississippi franchise. The NBA used to employ a similar system of player allocation before it turned the NBA draft.
The AAFL features an impressive Board of Directors (including our friend Gary Roberts, the new dean of Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis), but undoubtedly faces a difficult task. There have been many attempted professional football leagues over the last three decades, and for every Arena Football League, there seem to be quite a few failed ventures, including the United States Football League, the XFL, the Regional Football League, and the likely many others that never advanced past the planning stages. In addition, the AAFL isn't the only pro football league in-the-works: the United Football League, which hopes to begin play next summer in major cities that do not have NFL teams (including Los Angeles and Mexico City) and which enjoys the funding of Mark Cuban and Google executive Tim Armstrong, among other very wealthy folks, may emerge as a rival (for great discussions of the UFL, see posts by CNBC's Darren Rovell and Sports Economist's Skip Sauer, and for thought-provoking speculation that the UFL might attract players not old enough to meet the NFL's age requirement, see this post by AOL Fanhouse's Michael David Smith).
Whether or not the AAFL succeeds as a business venture, it features one noteworthy eligibility rule: players must possess a college degree. This rule, which does not reflect collective-bargaining (since there doesn't seem to be an AAFL players' association) but instead a unilateral league imposition, is ostensibly designed to encourage college football players to stay in school and focus on their studies. A cynic, however, might characterize it as a thinly-veiled attempt to appease the NCAA and colleges, which do not want to lose the players who generate so much revenue for them, and one that seems noticeably reflective of the backgrounds of AAFL's Board of Directors, which includes former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey as well as former conference commissioners, athletic directors, and head football coaches. Obviously, the rule also limits the number of available players, especially since many of the nation's best teams have poor graduation rates.
The college degree rule provides a topic for possible legal inquiry, at least in an academic sense. Back in the 80s, the USFL tried to impose the same eligibility requirement on players who sought to enter its draft, but in Boris v. USFL, 1984 Trade Cas. (CCH) P 66,012, (D. Cal. 1984), a federal district court held that the USFL and its teams, by unilaterally imposing such a rule, were engaging in a group boycott, thereby committing a per se violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. As I wrote in my law review article, "Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft":
Perhaps most significant, the Boris court questioned many of the reasons the USFL offered for its draft eligibility rule, particularly in relation to the one reason the USFL failed to mention: "the principal reason for the adoption by the USFL and its member teams of the Eligibility Rule was to respond to apparent demands made by college football programs and thereby to gain better access to these programs towards the end of selecting the best college players available." In other words, by guaranteeing that the USFL would not raid [*220] college programs of their players before their collegiate eligibility expired, college programs would steer some of their players towards the USFL, rather than the NFL--the competing and in most respects, superior professional football league. Equally notable, the court regarded the "principal reason" behind the draft rule as far more important than those proffered by the USFL - reasons which happen to echo some of the same reasons presently offered by the NBA: "very few college-athletes are physically, mentally, or emotionally mature enough for professional football ... the Eligibility Rule promotes the concept of the importance of a college education ... the Eligibility Rule promotes the efficient operation of the USFL by strengthening the sport at the college level so that the USFL does not have to develop players at that level."For similar reasons, in Denver Rockets v. All-Pro Management, 325 F. Supp. 1049 (D. Cal. 1971), the NBA lost an attempt at a unilaterally-imposed requirement that players be four years removed from high school because such a requirement was found to comprise an illegal restraint of trade.
In response, however, the AAFL might argue that its rule does not impact its draft eligibility, but rather eligibility to sign an employment contract (not sure that would be a sufficiently meaningful distinction). The AAFL might also argue that, unlike the USFL, it is not steering players away from the NFL, since it is expressly not competing with the NFL. Again, I am not predicting a lawsuit, I just find eligibility requirements interesting.