- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

Few things characterize Congressional inefficiency better than its attempts to repeal baseball's antitrust exemption.
The 79-year-old exemption, which allows the game to expand, move or fold franchises as it wishes, has survived 44 formal attempts at outright appeal or significant amendment since 1989, as well as hundreds more in preceding decades. In nearly every instance, the sponsoring legislator had plenty of good intentions and solid legal arguments. In many instances, hearings were held. But in absolutely every instance, the exemption survived.
But the latest effort on Capitol Hill, which begins in earnest today with a House Judiciary Committee hearing featuring commissioner Bud Selig, may be very different. Fueled by baseball's historic and unpopular effort to eliminate two franchises, likely Montreal and Minnesota, before next season, the lawmakers' blood pressure could be high enough to finally make some legislation stick.
"A lot of people beyond baseball and baseball fans are feeling we should do something about this," said Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat.
The new bill, entitled the Fairness in Antitrust in National Sports (FANS) Act, holds 15 co-sponsors from six states and both political parties. And unlike many previous baseball antitrust bills that were broad and unwieldy, the FANS Act has a single goal: making the relocation and contraction of teams subject to federal antitrust laws. All other provisions protected by the exemption, such as the operation of a vast minor league system and the joint negotiation for TV and licensing contracts, would remain intact.
In the short term, the hearing today also involving Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, Twins president Jerry Bell and Steven Fehr, an attorney representing the Major League Baseball Players Association promises the release of reams of new data from baseball's inner sanctum and some interesting political theater.
Selig did not comply with a request from Conyers, one of the bill's primary sponsors, to send in advance a mountain of information that included several years of team financial data, any recent study pertaining to contraction or relocation, background on franchise territorial rights, and details of any proposed franchise move in the last 50 years. But that data will be released, as will aggregate industry data Selig says will show baseball awash in red ink. The union and Ventura, however, will testify to a financially much stronger game.
The two primary sponsors of the FANS Act, Conyers and Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, concede their uphill fight. At once, they are fighting all the years of unsuccessful efforts, a packed Congressional schedule with far more important matters and the indifference among many of their colleagues.
President Bush is another matter as well. Bush has not formally announced a position on the matter and his support is critical, but his prior ownership of the Texas Rangers suggests at least passive support for baseball on this issue.
"It's going to be tough," Conyers said. "But there's a little more anger in the country now about what baseball is doing. We absolutely have to make the effort."
The surprise 1922 decision that created the exemption, a Supreme Court ruling by Oliver Wendell Holmes that baseball did not qualify as interstate commerce, has been questioned ever since. Objections have only intensified as the game has grown into a $3.5 billion colossus. The NBA, NHL and NFL, meanwhile, only enjoy far more limited antitrust protection on matters of negotiating broadcasting contracts. As a result, baseball has not moved a team in 30 years, while 23 teams from the other sports have moved, often yielding stronger franchises in the process.
So why has the exemption for baseball survived one Congressional investigation after another? According to most baseball and political historians and legal experts, pro sports has long been viewed as primarily a local issue. Despite the flurry of bills over the years, the majority of Congressmen year-to-year have believed that each community must make its own decisions about supporting their teams. Within that assumption was a belief that even baseball, with its antitrust protection, would move a team if the marketplace dictated.
"It's tough to get a lot of people on Capitol Hill really worked up about something like this," said Gary Roberts, deputy dean of Tulane Law School and a frequent researcher of sports law. "Look at what's happening just right now. There's a war going on, anthrax in the mail, an unsteady economy. There are a lot of bigger problems to wrestle with than what happens to the Twins and Expos."
Selig will testify to the need of eliminating teams due to baseball's surging tide of debt and annual losses exceeding $500 million, hence the planned release of all the financial data. He will also argue the virtue of baseball's comparative stability.
"If you take the exemption away, teams can move to wherever they want to move, as the other leagues have found out," Selig said. "How does that lead to the public good?"
But even if the FANS Act never comes close to becoming law, it may still achieve Conyers' and Wellstone's true desired aim: stopping contraction.
Since Selig announced last month the plan to eliminate two as-yet-unnamed teams, baseball has been besieged by legal and legislative objection. Besides the FANS Act, the operators of the Metrodome in Minneapolis obtained an injunction mandating the Twins to play there next year, and the players union is having a grievance mediated that claims the owners violated their labor agreement with the contraction plan. Resolution on any of these matters is weeks away, if not months.
Between all these measures, contracting two teams for the 2002 season already looks nearly impossible. And if eliminating teams does not ultimately appear like it will help cure systemic imbalance between teams or win concessions from the players, the current lock-solid support among the owners also may waver.
"We hope we will give the owners pause about what they're doing," Wellstone said. "They need to understand we are very determined."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide