baseball's antitrust exemption vs. every other national sport
May 25, 2010 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Please explain to me why Major League Baseball is exempt from antitrust laws while no other sports leagues are.

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the NFL is 32 separate entities rather than one, but the same court refuses to hear cases related to MLB's antitrust exemption, saying only Congress can make a change. I know this is far from the only inconsistency in Supreme Court rulings, but MLB-related cases come up often enough that would address it and the Supremes refuse to hear them, and in light of yesterday's unanimous ruling it doesn't make sense to me.
posted by headnsouth to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how frequently MLB-related cases come up in the courts, and, in any event, the vast majority of cases in lower courts never make it to the Supreme Court.

The last time the Supreme Court said anything about MLB's antitrust status was in the early 1970s, if I recall. Congress could have intervened since then but has declined to, likely because there have been more pressing issues facing the country in the past 40 years.
posted by dfriedman at 7:03 AM on May 25, 2010

Basically, in 1922, the Supreme Court rules that professional baseball did not count as interstate commerce, and thus is not subject to antitrust laws.

A decent ESPN article covering the highlights.
posted by jmd82 at 7:04 AM on May 25, 2010

In 1922, the same Supreme Court ruled in Federal Baseball Club v. National League that baseball was exempt from the provisions of the Sherman anti-trust act.

"1. The business of providing public baseball games for profit between clubs of professional baseball players in a league and between clubs of rival leagues, although necessarily involving the constantly repeated traveling of the players from one state to another, provided for, controlled, and disciplined by the organizations employing them, is not interstate commerce."

It does not seem to be within the scope of Congressional authority to make a change to the status.

On preview what jmd82 said.
posted by three blind mice at 7:06 AM on May 25, 2010

Yep I understand the original ruling, what I don't get is why other sports aren't treated the same way by the Supreme Court.
posted by headnsouth at 7:10 AM on May 25, 2010

Flood v. Kuhn (1972)*. The Supreme Court found many years ago that baseball is a sport and not business; it was upheld in this 1972 case. The Court won't overturn its own precedent unless it is clearly wrong/meets some other conditions (and sometimes not even in those situations)--that's the concept of stare decisis.

In this case, the Court has refused to alter the status of baseball because (as you've noted) it doesn't have the institutional competence to do so. There have been many attempts in Congress to regulate baseball in this way, and it's always been voted down. SCOTUS is sensitive to that and won't "legislate from the bench" in this situation, where it is (a) pretty insignificant (i.e., not a question of civil rights) and (b) abundantly clear that the legislature hasn't been willing to take action on the issue.

* By the time Flood was decided, the Court had already decided that football and boxing were businesses subject to regulation by Congress under the Commerce Clause. So even in 1972 the Court knew the baseball exception was inconsistent/silly. Still, stare decisis held strong.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:10 AM on May 25, 2010

what I don't get is why other sports aren't treated the same way by the Supreme Court

Well, the simple answer here is that the ruling pertained to professional baseball, not all professional sports.

Some interesting articles:


posted by dfriedman at 7:14 AM on May 25, 2010

Note also that in Toolson v. New York Yankees (1952), the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Baseball Club decision largely on the grounds that if Congress had disagreed with its decision to exempt Major League Baseball from the anti-trust act, it would have done so at some point in the thirty years following. By the time Flood v. Kuhn rolled around in 1972, the Supreme Court basically said, "MLB is obviously a business engaged in interstate commerce, but stare decisis, suckers."
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:21 AM on May 25, 2010

The Board of Regents case suggested the NCAA gets some special treatment in antitrust, but it's far less secure than MLB's special status. (Although that may change.)

And to be honest I think a part (even if small) of the the real answer is human bias--the rulings were made by humans, and Flood was written by Justice Blackmun, who was a RABID baseball fan. That doesn't explain everything, but I think the whole "reverence for the classic American sport" is involved.
posted by sallybrown at 7:27 AM on May 25, 2010

Other posters have pretty well covered the waterfront here. The short answer is that the SCOTUS often comes to inconsistent conclusions, especially when you look at decisions handed down by differently-constituted benches.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:02 AM on May 25, 2010

I think the whole "reverence for the classic American sport" is involved.

Heh, tort law in England is full of instances of cricket being pretty much untouchable. Hit by a ball outside the ground? Not actionable, bitches.

Also, see this:
In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good club house for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team play there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighbouring villages. On other evenings after work they practise while the light lasts. Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play there any more. He has issued an injunction to stop them. He has done it at the instance of a newcomer who is no lover of cricket. This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket. But now this adjoining field has been turned into a housing estate. The newcomer bought one of the houses on the edge of the cricket ground. No doubt the open space was a selling point. Now he complains that when a batsman hits a six the ball has been known to land in his garden or on or near his house. His wife has got so upset about it that they always go out at week-ends. They do not go into the garden when cricket is being played. They say that this is intolerable. So they asked the judge to stop the cricket being played. And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped: with the consequence, I suppose, that the Lintz Cricket Club will disappear. The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. I expect for more houses or a factory. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much the poorer. And all this because of a newcomer who has just bought a house there next to the cricket ground.

- Lord Denning, M.R.
They went on to overturn the injunction

posted by djgh at 9:58 AM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

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