At a time when the NFL is facing a class-action lawsuit against all of its current and future (at least for 2011) players alleging violations of the antitrust laws, at least one member of Congress wants to strip the league of an important exemption from antitrust liability.
Starting in 1961, Congress provided the NFL with an antitrust exemption as to its broadcasting deals. As a result, the league may sell its television rights in a 32-team block. This means that any network that wants to televise popular teams like the Cowboys, Patriots, and Steelers also must purchase the possibility of airing less compelling matchups involving the less popular teams. (We were going to list a few, but in the offseason everyone is 0-0, and anyone can win the Super Bowl. Besides, we didn’t want to deal with whining from Panthers, Bengals, and Bills fans. Oops.)
Now, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.; pictured) wants to revoke the antitrust exemption. It’s a topic that NFLPA* executive director DeMaurice Smith has been mentioning for a couple of years. In July 2009, Smith led a contingent to Capitol Hill for the purposes of reminding Congress about the “gifts” that lawmakers have given to the league, including the antitrust exemption.
It’s a dangerous game for Smith and the players. Losing the exemption would dramatically change the manner in which the NFL markets TV rights, allowing men like Jerry Jones to pull a Notre Dame, selling the rights to all of the Cowboys’ home games to one network, at a rate much higher than most other teams could get. Though the total dollars for all TV contracts would possibly stay the same, it would be much harder to persuade Jones and other owners of popular teams to agree to share the revenue that they generate from their own broadcasting contracts.
That said, the fact that Republicans currently control the House of Representatives will prevent Conyers’ proposed legislation from gaining traction. Though Convyers is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, the current committee chair won’t take up the matter.
“The owners and players are both literally and figuratively big boys and do not need Congress to referee every dispute for them,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R.-Tx.) said.
Though we’re not prepared to suggest that Congress should stay out of a matter of such intense public interest, revoking the antitrust exemption potentially would do far more harm to the game than the current labor dispute ever will.