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The Sports Business Swamp

August 01, 1986

The verdict in the highly publicized lawsuit by the United States Football League against the National Football League was confused and contradictory--a reflection of the vague status that professional sports have as a business in this country.

Jurors who heard the antitrust case in New York decided that the older and wealthier NFL does indeed have a monopoly on professional football. But they awarded the young USFL only the most minimal damages--$3.

More than anything else, this reflects the jurors' distaste for both sides in the suit. Some described the testimony of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle as "devious," yet also expressed distrust for key USFL witnesses like New York developer Donald Trump. It was clear to the jury that the lawsuit was an attempt by USFL owners like Trump to force the NFL into a merger with their league. Rather than trying to break up a monopoly, the USFL wanted to be part of it.

Despite losing, Rozelle and other NFL officials expressed satisfaction with the verdict. Clearly they think that the decision will allow them to practice business as usual. Rozelle also hopes that the ruling will help persuade Congress to exempt the NFL from antitrust laws.

But it would be a mistake for Congress to enter that mire. As the jurors concluded, the NFL already is a monopoly, for all intents and purposes. Locking this monopoly into law would only worsen the troubling side effects of the situation, like Rozelle's arrogant attempt to keep Los Angeles from getting a new pro football team when the Rams moved to Anaheim.

The business of professional sports has been in a legal limbo ever since the U.S. Supreme Court granted baseball immunity from antitrust laws in 1922. There may be no changing that decision, but the more the rest of pro ssports are allowed to operate as a free market, the better.

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