NFL Loses Bid to Be Immune to Antitrust Laws; High Court Rejects Lower-Level Decisions 9-0

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In one of the year's most-anticipated cases, the Supreme Court on Monday unanimously rejected rulings by two lower courts that the National Football League is immune from antitrust laws, a status the league has long sought.

The 9-0 ruling means the NFL will now have to defend itself against a lawsuit brought by a hat manufacturer alleging that the league violated antitrust laws by granting exclusive merchandising rights to a single company, Reebok.

The hat company, American Needle Inc., argued that the league's 32 teams should be able to individually negotiate apparel contracts with different companies.

The case, known as American Needle Inc. v. NFL, was thrown out at both the district and appellate court level with both courts ruling that the NFL was a single entity - not a collection of 32 individual teams - and therefore could not violate antitrust laws.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in perhaps the final opinion he will write before retiring at the end of the court's term, asserted that the analyses of the lower courts were flawed. He wrote that each of the league's 32 teams are an independently owned, and independently managed business.

To a firm making hats, the Saints and the Colts are two potentially competing suppliers of valuable trademarks, Justice Stevens wrote. "When each NFL team licenses its intellectual property, it is not pursuing the 'common interests of the whole' league but is instead pursuing interests of each 'corporation itself.'

Decisions by NFL teams to license their separately owned trademarks collectively and to only one vendor are decisions that 'deprive the marketplace of independent centers of decision making,' and therefore of actual or potential competition he wrote.

In a separate case also decided Monday, the court ruled unanimously in favor of a group of black firefighter applicants from Chicago in a discrimination lawsuit. It is the second time in the past two years the court has weighed in on perceived hiring discrimination in fire departments.

Last year, the high court ruled in favor of a group of white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., who argued it was discriminatory for a city to throw out the results of a promotional exam because not enough black candidates scored highly enough.

In the most recent case, known as Lewis v. Chicago, a substantial number of black candidates passed an application exam, but were told they were unlikely to be hired because the majority of the highest scores belonged to white applicants. …