The future of our professional team sports hangs today in the balance. Decisions by Congress within the next few months may well determine whether baseball, football, basketball and hockey are to continue to flourish or whether they will be destroyed by unwise application of the laws of our land.
This situation has arisen as a result of a recent decision by the Supreme Court in the Radovich case (SI, March 11) which indicated, in effect, that professional football is an interstate business subject to the antitrust laws while professional baseball is not.
There has been a good deal of confusion as to just what the high court said in this important case. Actually, after calling football an interstate business—and hence subject to the antitrust laws—the court continued baseball's special exemption. Significantly, however, the majority decision added that, if this differentiation between football and baseball appeared "illogical," the "orderly way" to eliminate any apparent unfairness was through the enactment of remedial legislation by Congress.
Therefore, Congress has a definite mandate to clear up the muddled situation which has resulted from the Radovich decision. In effect, Congress has been appointed an umpire by the Supreme Court to decide whether professional team sports shall be subject to antitrust control or not.
The response of Congress to the court's mandate was immediate and diversified. Within a short time, three proposals were advanced by various members of Congress to end once and for all the confusion surrounding the relationship of our professional sports and the antitrust laws. These proposals will be the subject of hearings by the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, slated to begin June 17th. From these hearings may emerge recommendations for consideration of the entire House and Senate.
THREE DIFFERENT APPROACHES
The first approach, exemplified by the bills introduced by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York and Representative Patrick Hillings of California, would make baseball subject to antitrust laws. No other sports are mentioned. Enactment of this proposal would probably result in the court's striking down the reserve clause, which in effect makes a young potential star the property of his club, to be sold or traded only at the club's discretion, and outlawing various aspects of baseball's draft and farm systems.
A second method, as proposed in a bill introduced by Representative Oren Harris of Arkansas, would exempt professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey completely from antitrust regulation. This blanket immunity would prevent any appeal to the courts for any antitrust violations in any aspect of sports enterprises, including purely business operations.
A third method, which I am sponsoring, would exempt from antitrust law the aspects of professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey directly concerned with the sports themselves. This would include organization of leagues and associations, territorial agreements, employment of players and playing rules of the game. My own personal feeling is that the controversial reserve clause, option contracts, draft and farm systems, though essential to the structure of the games, may well be modified without endangering the basic foundations of the sports. I shall try during the hearings to find workable alternatives, but am determined not to condemn practices which are necessary to the continued success of these sports.
However, purely business aspects of these games, such as operation of concessions, sale of radio and television rights, management of stadiums, and purchase and sale of advertising would be subject to the antitrust laws.