Justices Tackle NFL Antitrust Controversy
Sands, David R., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The Washington Redskins held a spring scrimmage at the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, as lawyers and justices considered one of the year's most closely watched labor-law cases.
Redskins General Manager Charlie Casserly and National Football League Players Association President Gene Upshaw sat in the gallery while the high court heard starkly differing views on whether the NFL's 28 teams violated federal antitrust laws.
The case features a clash of labor law and antitrust law dating back to 1989, when a group of 235 players claimed league owners illegally colluded to hold down their salaries after collective-bargaining talks broke down.
The case has attracted considerable attention from major business groups, which claim that a victory for the NFL players union could endanger multi-employer bargaining patterns long used in such industries as construction, printing, building services, mining and transportation.
The players union "wants to have it both ways," argued NFL lawyer Gregg H. Levy - exercising rights under federal labor laws to bargain with a group of employers but using the threat of antitrust suits against those same employers if talks reach an impasse.
The National Railway Labor Conference, the management bargaining group for the nation's major railroads, warned in a friend-of-the-court brief that the 70-year pattern of multi-employer bargaining in the industry "would be crippled if not destroyed altogether" if the antitrust laws came into play in the collective-bargaining process.
But union lawyer Kenneth Starr, who also is heading the Whitewater independent counsel investigation, argued yesterday that sports labor patterns are unique and that it is the NFL teams who are trying unfairly to control the options.
Freed of antitrust fears, team owners would have every incentive to deadlock labor talks and then impose their own conditions and terms on the players, he said. "The economic freedom of the players is at stake here."
Mr. Levy argued that the players should have pursued traditional labor-law remedies before the National Labor Relations Board. Filing the antitrust suit in 1989 resulted in six years of litigation that "has poisoned labor relations in this industry." Justice Department lawyer Lawrence G. Wallace argued in favor of the players, saying that once salary talks reached an impasse "the employers cannot act in concert to change pay terms without coming under antitrust scrutiny. …