Fifteen members of Congress, led by Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, and Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, took aim at Major League Baseball yesterday, issuing a bill designed to roll back the game’s cherished antitrust exemption.
The bill, introduced in both the House and Senate as the Fairness in Antitrust in National Sports (FANS) Act, extends an often bitter war between baseball and Washington over the game’s 79-year-old exemption.
The FANS Act seeks to make baseball subject to normal antitrust laws when seeking to move or eliminate franchises. No other major sports league enjoys federal protection against such laws as baseball now does. Club owners voted last week to shut down two teams, likely the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins, before the 2002 season.
Wellstone, Conyers and their co-sponsors acknowledged that they face an uphill battle. The antitrust exemption has survived the players’ strike of 1994-95 and numerous other high-profile challenges over the decades. And now Congress has more important matters to address before its winter recess as a result of the terrorist attacks.
“The whole timing of this is very unfortunate,” Wellstone said, also mentioning the owners’ vote to contract just two days after the World Series. “But we didn’t choose this [timing]. There are people all across the country who believe [the owners] should be held accountable, that this decision to wipe out two teams was totally arbitrary and capricious. The decision is a betrayal by owners who have put their own profits before loyalty to fans and their communities.”
Congress last tackled baseball’s antitrust exemption in 1998, when the Curt Flood Act overturned the game’s special protection on labor issues. The new legislation does not seek to alter baseball’s antitrust exemption on matters unrelated to relocation or contraction, such as minor league baseball and licensing operations.
Limiting the exemption would grant any party affected by a team move or closure such as a player, contracted vendor or stadium authority significant ammunition to seek damages in court. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) yesterday commended the bill and reiterated its view that relocation, perhaps to the Washington area, would be its preferred option for a troubled franchise.
League officials, predictably, criticized the bill.
“Major League Baseball has used the antitrust exemption to promote franchise stability and our thriving minor league system,” said Robert DuPuy, MLB’s chief legal officer. “To eliminate the exemption in the manner suggested by the pending bill would put at risk the stability that has been achieved in each of those areas.”
The next step for the legislation likely will be hearings in the judiciary committees of both sides of Congress. Neither panel has scheduled anything, but even with Capitol Hill’s packed schedule, hearings before the end of the year remain possible.
Wellstone and Conyers also will continue seeking support from President Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers. Wellstone and Sen. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Democrat, another of the bill’s co-sponsors, wrote Bush last week seeking his endorsement of the bill. As of yesterday, the President had not announced his position on the matter.
Conyers said yesterday that if baseball elects to reverse course on contraction, he and the bill’s co-sponsors will scrap the legislation. He also hinted at the possibility of pursuing a full repeal of the exemption in the future.
The proposed FANS Act represents just one of a litany of measures seeking to derail the contraction effort. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth has subpoenaed baseball for records on contraction and relocation, Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch is considering a federal lawsuit against baseball, the MLBPA has filed a labor grievance and several other parties are seeking lawsuits or injunctions.
The entire contraction issue, however, still represents a sidebar to greater labor unease between the players and owners. The collective bargaining agreement between the two sides expired last week, and though the previous terms of that pact will continue for now, an impasse could lead to the game’s ninth work stoppage since 1972.