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SMITH v. PRO-FOOTBALL

September 8, 1976

James McCoy (Yazoo) Smith, Plaintiffs
v.
Pro-Football, et al., Defendants


Bryant, D.J.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: BRYANT

In this action, which was tried to the Court, plaintiff seeks to recover treble damages under the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1, 2, 3, and Section 4 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 15. No disputes exist as to any jurisdictional or procedural questions. The defendants are Pro-Football, Inc., better known as the Washington Redskins, and the National Football League, the unincorporated association of major league professional football teams in the United States. There is no dispute that the defendants are engaged in substantial interstate commerce as well as national telecasts of their football games.

 The plaintiff, James McCoy (Yazoo) Smith, was an All-American college football player at the University of Oregon, from which he graduated in 1968. He was "drafted" by the Redskins in the league's annual player selection draft in January, 1968, as their first round choice. He was the twelfth player in the nation to be drafted that year. After some negotiations, in which he was represented by an agent, plaintiff on May 11, 1968 signed a one-year contract with the Redskins, the Standard Player Contract required by the NFL Constitution and By-Laws to be signed by all players. Plaintiff, who was expected to become one of the finest defensive backs ever to play professional football, received a contract calling for the payment of a $23,000 "bonus" for signing, an additional $5,000 if he made the team, and a salary of $22,000. He made the team easily, and performed at a very high level during his first season of play. Unfortunately, his career was abruptly terminated when he received a serious neck injury in the final game of that 1968 season. In those causes of action which have survived to trial, plaintiff asserts that he was damaged in his business or property, i.e. his ability to market his unique skills, by the combinations and agreements of the defendants contained in the NFL Constitution and By-Laws and commonly known as the player selection draft, with its attendant effectuating restrictions. *fn1" The essence of these contentions is that because of the draft, which plaintiff argues constitutes a group boycott under the antitrust laws, he was unable to negotiate a contract reflecting the free market or true value of his services, and unable to negotiate a contract containing adequate guarantees against loss of earnings in the event of injury.

 The mechanics of the NFL draft are not complex. The order of choosing is determined by the teams' playing record in the season just ended, with the team with the poorest winning percentage picking first, the team with the second-worst winning percentage picking second, and so forth. The winner of the Super Bowl (the league championship game) picks last, and the runner-up in the Super Bowl picks second-last. Each team has one choice in each round of the draft (unless it has traded its choice in that round to another team), and there are seventeen rounds in each yearly draft. At the time of plaintiff's selection by the Redskins, there were twenty-six teams choosing in the draft. Through various restraints imposed by the NFL Constitution and Bylaws, no team is permitted to negotiate prior to the draft with any player eligible to be drafted, and no team may negotiate with (or sign) any player selected by another team in the draft. Future draft choices may be traded by any team, and commonly are so traded. The net result of these restrictions is that the right to negotiate with any given player is exclusively held by one team at any particular time, and if the player cannot reach a satisfactory agreement with the team holding the rights to his services he cannot play in the NFL (unless of course he is traded to another team and signs with that team). Upon reaching an agreement with a team, each player is required to sign a National Football League Standard Player Contract containing various provisions, among which is a pledge to honor and obey the rules contained in the NFL Constitution and By-Laws. Each player may also sign a supplemental agreement with the team embodying any additional compensation and benefit features which he has negotiated with the team. As of March 5, 1968, the National Football League Players Association became the exclusive bargaining agent and representative of the NFL players. This union executed its first collective bargaining agreement with the NFL owners in November of 1968; that agreement has since expired, and the union and the owners have been unable to reach another agreement to date.

 I. The Labor Law Exemption

 The defendants argue that the NFL draft is a subject of mandatory collective bargaining between the league and the NFL Players Association, the collective bargaining agent of the players, and is therefore exempt from review under the antitrust laws by virtue of the so-called "labor law exemption". For the reasons which follow, the Court holds that this exemption does not bar a recovery by plaintiff in this case.

 A.

 As defendants argue, there is indeed a labor law exemption from the coverage of the antitrust laws for certain arrangements resulting from collective bargaining agreements between employers and employees. This doctrine, the precise contours of which are neither clear nor entirely coherent, has been elucidated by the Supreme Court primarily in four leading cases: United States v. Hutcheson, 312 U.S. 219, 85 L. Ed. 788, 61 S. Ct. 463 (1941); Allen Bradley Co. v. Local Union No. 3, 325 U.S. 797, 89 L. Ed. 1939, 65 S. Ct. 1533 (1945); Meat Cutters v. Jewel Tea Co., 381 U.S. 676, 14 L. Ed. 2d 640, 85 S. Ct. 1596 (1965); and United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657, 14 L. Ed. 2d 626, 85 S. Ct. 1585 (1965); See also Connell Construction Co. v. Plumbers & Steamfitters, 421 U.S. 616, 44 L. Ed. 2d 418, 95 S. Ct. 1830 (1975). While these cases do not leave the precise manner of applying the doctrine to the circumstances of professional football entirely free from doubt, they do establish rules and guidelines clearly dispositive of defendants' contentions in this case. First, the cases provide no support whatever for the league's argument that arrangements related to mandatory subjects of collective bargaining, prior to their embodiment in an agreement, fall within the exemption merely because they relate to mandatory subjects. A reading of Mr. Justice Goldberg's concurring opinion in Jewel Tea, supra at 697, upon which defendants rely for this notion, makes clear that his arguments all assume the existence of a collective bargaining agreement, and cannot be read in any reasonable fashion as support for the league's argument in this regard. Moreover, the Court's opinion in Pennington, from which Justice Goldberg's concurrence in Jewel Tea also serves as a dissent, specifically states that an agreement resulting from union-employer negotiations is not "automatically exempt from Sherman Act scrutiny simply because the negotiations involve a compulsory subject of bargaining, regardless of the subject or the form and content of the agreement." Pennington, supra, at 664-665. A fortiori, if a completed agreement is not exempt from antitrust scrutiny, then a mandatory subject upon which an agreement has not yet been concluded cannot be exempt. And in any event, it seems apparent that the policy of the exemption -- allowing the collective bargaining process, proceeding unfettered by antitrust restraints, to determine wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment -- does not require and would not be served by extending the exemption to arrangements imposed unilaterally by employers, merely because such arrangements could at some time be settled upon through mandatory collective bargaining. Indeed, the thrust of the cases is quite the opposite: a scheme advantageous to employers and otherwise in violation of the antitrust laws cannot under any circumstances come within the exemption unless and until it becomes part of a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a union in its own self-interest. Defendants' argument that plaintiff was not entitled to the protection of the antitrust laws must therefore fail, since the plaintiff entered into his contract with the Redskins prior to the time when the league and the player's association (acting as exclusive bargaining agent for the players) reached their initial collective bargaining agreement. And finally in this regard, even if the exemption were viewed as having become operative as to all mandatory subjects of collective bargaining at the first moment there was an exclusive bargaining agent representing the players with respect to those subjects, plaintiff's recovery here would still not be barred. The NFL Players Association did not become the exclusive bargaining agent for purposes of the labor law exemption until March 5, 1968, when it signed a recognition agreement with the league. Plaintiff however was drafted in January of 1968, and it was at that time that the restraints of the draft and related rules were imposed upon him. His cause of action therefore accrued before the exemption could under any view of the law have been considered operative.

 B.

 Even assuming for purposes of argument that the draft had been embodied in a collective bargaining agreement covering a period early enough to make possible the operation of the exemption with respect to plaintiff's antitrust claims -- which it clearly was not -- this would not automatically immunize the draft and the league from antitrust liability. *fn2" First, it would have to be shown that the draft constitutes an agreement on mandatory subjects of bargaining. While the issue is not wholly free from doubt, it does appear to the Court that the matters inherent in the draft would constitute such subjects. In general, those subjects include wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. It is clear that the union and the teams could collectively bargain all monetary compensation, benefits, incentives, and guarantees to be paid to first-year players as mandatory subjects. In light of the acceptance of such practices as the hiring hall, see Teamsters Local v. NLRB, 365 U.S. 667, 81 S. Ct. 835, 6 L. Ed. 2d 11 (1961), and seniority as determinants of the structure of the labor market in a particular industry and of the opportunity for employment in a given place at a given time, it seems probable that each feature of the draft as to which plaintiff raises antitrust objections would also be considered a term or condition of employment. See also, Jacobs & Winter, Antitrust Principles and Collective Bargaining By Athletes: Of Superstars in Peonage, 81 Yale L.J. 1, 16 (1971). Once it has been established that the draft flows from mandatory subjects of bargaining, the cases cited above also require that it have been arrived at as a result of genuine, arms-length bargaining, and not have been "thrust upon" a weak players union by the owners. See also, Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258, 288, 295, 32 L. Ed. 2d 728, 92 S. Ct. 2099 (1972) (dissenting opinion of Marshall, J.). The league contends that the 1968 and subsequent collective bargaining agreements, incorporating the NFL Constitution and By-Laws (which contain the provisions and procedures for the draft) reflect an agreement of the sort required. This issue would have to be explored at trial in an appropriate case.

 One final set of issues would be relevant in such a trial. In each of the leading cases (cited above) subsequent to Hutcheson, the challenged collective bargaining agreement worked to the disadvantage of the competitors of management. The doctrine of those cases is to the effect that even when an agreement is related to mandatory subjects, it must be examined to determine if it is (1) An employers' combination/conspiracy, in which the union has acquiesced, whose purpose is to fix prices, allocate markets, or drive competitors from the market (i.e., an attempt to monopolize). Such an agreement does not fall within the exemption, see Allen Bradley, supra. (2) A joint management-union combination/conspiracy to accomplish those objectives, in which the union and management interests appear to coincide. Such an agreement must be scrutinized for its relative impact on the product market and the interests of union members, in light of national labor and antitrust policies. (3) The result of the union's own efforts in its self-interest, free of any agreement with or among the employers to attempt to accomplish those objectives. Only the third kind of collective bargaining agreement on mandatory subjects has been given an unqualified exemption from the antitrust laws subsequent to Jewel Tea and Pennington. In the present case, two additional factors complicate the analysis that would have been required should this issue have been appropriate for trial. First, unlike the collective bargaining agreements under challenge in the leading cases, an agreement containing the draft would work not to the disadvantage of the competitors of the employers but rather to the detriment of potential employees, persons neither party to the agreement nor members of a union which is party to the agreement. Secondly, the draft itself, if not within the exemption, would constitute a per se violation of the antitrust laws, as will be seen below, yet is not one of the proscribed objectives specifically enumerated by the prior cases.

 While a group boycott such as the NFL draft is not one of the objectives of collective bargaining agreement heretofore specifically proscribed, it does share many characteristics of such anticompetitive practices, and is one of those practices "at the core of the type of anticompetitive commercial restraint at which the antitrust laws are directed," Jewel Tea, supra, at 733 (concurring opinion of Goldberg, J.). It seems likely, therefore, that in a situation comparable to Allen Bradley or even Pennington a group boycott would be held to be a proscribed objective of such an agreement.

 With regard to the fact that the boycott's impact is on potential employees rather than on competitors of the employer, however, the Court believes that the policies of the labor laws require that such an agreement be found to be within the scope of the exemption to the antitrust laws. First, as Justice Goldberg points out in his concurring opinion in Jewel Tea, the central thrust of the antitrust statutes is directed towards protecting the functioning of a free product market from concentrations of economic power in the hands of trusts and employers. While these laws also (absent the exemption) protect a talented football player from a boycott by the team owners, such protection is somewhat less central to the objectives of the antitrust laws. Secondly, it is quite central to the purposes of the labor laws to allow unions to arrive at bargains that they consider in their best interests with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Indeed, this is the very rationale of the exemption itself. Therefore, accommodating the competing antitrust and labor law policies as the Supreme Court cases require, it would appear that if such a bargain has been concluded as the result of "bona-fide, arm's-length bargaining in pursuit of their own labor union policies, and not at the behest of" nonlabor groups, it is exempt from the antitrust laws. See, Jewel Tea, supra at 690 and n. 5. In other words, given a determination of the union that negotiation of a draft is important to it and the fairly clearly mandatory bargaining nature of the draft's inherent issues, the accommodation required by Jewel Tea, supra at 689, of labor and antitrust policies, ...


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