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Saturday, August 25, 2007
Is the "Ricky Williams Rule" about to be Sacked?

Since the NFL announced its suspension of Michael Vick, many of my esteemed colleagues have presumed that Vick will also get banned from the Canadian Football League ("CFL") based on the "Ricky Williams Rule," which prevents any player suspended by the NFL from entering the CFL. Michael McCann even touches upon this point in his wonderful first column in Sports Illustrated.

I am not sure, however, whether the Ricky Williams Rule is even legal. Isn't it true that an agreement amongst all of the teams in a pro sports league to boycott a class of players would indicate a prima facie case of an antitrust violation? Isn't it also the case that the CFL has market power in the labor market for players banned by the NFL (presuming that issue is even relevant) because NFL teams are not part of the viable market for such players' services?

For purposes of background, the Sherman Act states, "every contract, combination ... or conspiracy, in the restraint of trade or commerce ... is declared to be illegal." Applying the Sherman Act, American courts on three different occasions have found agreements amongst professional sports teams that boycott a certain class of players to be illegal. For example, in the case Denver Rockets v. All-Pro Management Inc., 323 F.Supp. 1049 (C.D. Cal. 1971), a court struck down then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy's rule that banned all players from the NBA that were less than four years removed from high school. This was the ruling that ultimately allowed Spencer Haywood to enter the NBA at a more junior age.

Indeed, the more recent case Clarett v. Nat'l Football League, 369 F.3d 124 (2d. Cir. 2004) potentially limits the holding of cases like Denver Rockets to only situations where the agreement to exclude a class of players is reached outside of the collective bargaining process. However, for purposes of analyzing the "Ricky Williams Rule," which presumably was unilaterally implemented by the CFL, the Second Circuit's limitation in Clarett is entirely irrelevant.

With that said, under antitrust law, there are less restrictive alternatives for the CFL to prevent the entry of troublesome players, such as for the CFL to review the candidacy of each prospective player on a case-by-case basis. A case-by-case review of players banned by the NFL would make more sense given that the CFL has already "grandfathered" players that are currently playing in the CFL but previously banned from the NFL. In a statement that may prove especially damning to the CFL, the CFL in November of 2006 stated that "one of the reasons for the ban is to maintain a good relationship with the NFL."

Indeed, the biggest challenge to bringing a suit against the CFL may involve proving U.S.-based anti-competitive effects given that much of this allegedly anti-competitive conduct occurred outside of the United States. However, given that most of the football players that would be banned from the CFL under this rule live in the United States, as well as that some of the CFL fans reside in the United States, and that CFL games are broadcast into the American market through Dish Network, DirecTV and America One, these concerns should not prevent a bona fide antitrust challenge against the Ricky Williams Rule in United States federal courts.


It would seem to me that Sherman would NOT apply to the CFL for the obvious reason--the CFL is in Canada so U.S. anti-trust law doesn't apply to a Canadian sports league operating solely in Canada (unlike a few years back when there were franchises in several U.S. cities), unless . . . ??

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/25/2007 1:36 PM  

I agree that US laws are not applicable in Canada. Although, probably would be a good thing for Vick to go to Canada and get away from some of his homeboys. Of course I'm sure as part of his probation he will probably be prohibited from associating with felons.

He would need a passport and who knows what kind of restrictions may arise in the next couple of years in order for him to get one.

Part of his sentence will probably include probation. In the plea, it states it can be up to 3 years. I'm not sure he would be allowed to travel out of the country while on probation. He may also have to complete community service as part of his sentence.

His financial records will be part of the court records. At that time we will know how much of the $66 million he has received in the last 6 years he still has. He may not need to rush into a job right away.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/25/2007 3:32 PM  

the Sherman Act CAN apply to foreign entities.

for example:

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held that the Sherman Act regulates conduct directed at foreign markets to the extent that the conduct causes injury to United States commerce by (i) reducing the competitiveness of a domestic market or (ii) making possible anticompetitive conduct directed at domestic markets.

Kruman v. Christie’s Int’l Plc, 2002 WL 398290 (2d Cir., Mar. 13, 2002)

Blogger Jimmy H -- 8/25/2007 3:37 PM  

I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but it seems to me there must be other examples of professional sports leagues honoring each other's suspensions. The NHL and the European leagues have long had agreements in place in this regard, and I have to believe the Arena League would refuse employment to Vick just as the CFL would.

Surely Jose Offerman won't be allowed back into major league baseball if the independent league he'd been playing in ends up banning him for life? Surely that moron basketball player who choked his coach a few years back wouldn't have been allowed to just go play in the D-League?

Regardless, the Sherman Act can try to apply itself to the CFL all it wants, but there's the little matter of being able to enforce any penalties a court might set. I doubt the CFL has any assets in the U.S. that could be seized, and they're probably paying to get any of their U.S. TV carriage anyway - if it's blocked, it's not like they're losing a major revenue source.

Besides, this is all moot. Ricky Williams was able to come work in Canada because his suspension was drug-related and I don't believe - although I could be wrong - there was any criminal conviction. With a federal record, even absent the Ricky Williams rule, there's absolutely no way that Michael Vick would be allowed into Canada by the customs cops, let alone granted a work visa to play in the CFL.

Anonymous Sean Boulton -- 8/25/2007 5:55 PM  

Vick will require special Canadian government permission to enter Canada as visitor much less to be able to obtain a work permit once his conviction is entered.

The CFL limits their 40 man roster to no more than 21 foreign born players. They also have or had some sort of financial support from the NFL.

Blogger Mark -- 8/25/2007 8:03 PM  

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