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The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) longstanding cartel-like arrangements once again are facing serious legal scrutiny.  On June 9 a federal antitrust trial opened in Oakland featuring college athletes’ attempt to enjoin the NCAA from exploiting the athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (“rights of publicity”) for profitRights of publicity are a well-recognized form of intellectual property.  Although the factual details concerning the means by which NCAA institutions may have extracted those rights (for example, from signed waivers that may have been required as a condition for receipt of athletic scholarships) remain to be developed, a concerted NCAA effort to exploit the athletes’ IP, if proven, would be highly anticompetitive.  Consistent with the TOTM tradition of highlighting challenges to NCAA competitive arrangements, let’s look at what’s at stake.

The NCAA is involved in major sports-related revenue-producing projects with its corporate partners, such as Electronic Arts (EA), a $4 billion company that produces video games.  The money is big – EA’s NCAA Football game alone is reported to bring in over $200 million a year in gross revenues.  Although the NCAA has denied using player likenesses in video games, the creators of the NCAA Football series have indicated that actual athletes’ jersey numbers and attributes are used, a fact apparently known to NCAA executives.  Moreover, recent separate $20 million and $40 million settlements agreed to by the NCAA and EA in suits brought by college athletes provide additional indications that the NCAA may be aware that it has exploited college players’ rights of publicity.

So what is the antitrust angle?  In dealing with student athletes, the NCAA, which represents the interests of its member colleges, acts like a monopsony cartel, as Judge Posner has noted, and as Blair and Harrison have explained in detail.  Anticompetitive monopsony buyer agreements have long been struck down by the courts as Sherman Act violations, as in Mandeville Farms and in National Macaroni Manufacturers v. FTC, and occasionally have been the subject of criminal prosecution.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that all restrictions the NCAA places on student athletes run afoul of the antitrust laws.  As the Supreme Court made clear in the 1984 NCAA case, the federal antitrust laws apply to the NCAA, but competitive restraints may pass muster if they are justifiable means of fostering competition among amateur athletic teams, such as uniform rules defining the conditions of a sports contest, the eligibility of participants, or the sharing of responsibilities and benefits integral to the NCAA’s joint venture.

Like the anticompetitive restrictions on member colleges’ separate television contracts struck down by the Supreme Court in NCAA, however, the NCAA’s profiting from student athletes’ rights of publicity is not vital to the preservation of balanced collegiate amateur competition.   Likewise, it is not needed to avoid the payment of student salaries that some might argue smacks of disfavored “professionalism” (although others would argue it promotes healthy competition and avoids exploitation of athletes).  In contrast, a policy of vindicating athletes’ right of publicity enables them to capture the value of the intellectual property generated by their accomplishments, and thus incentivizes outstanding athletic achievements, consistent with the legitimate ends of NCAA competitions.  Proof of a concerted effort by the NCAA to deny this benefit to student athletes and instead to share the IP-generated proceeds only with member institutions would, if shown, appear to lack any cognizable efficiency justification, and thus be ripe for antitrust condemnation.

Whatever the outcome of the current rights of publicity litigation, the NCAA may expect to face antitrust scrutiny on a number of fronts.  This is as it should be.  While the organization clearly yields efficiencies that benefit consumers (such as establishing and overseeing rules and standards for many collegiate sports), its inherent temptation to act as a classic cartel for the financial benefit of its members will not disappear.  Indeed, its incentive to seek monopoly profits may rise, as the money generated by organized athletics and related entertainment offshoots continues to grow.  Accordingly, antitrust enforcers should remain vigilant, and efforts to obtain NCAA-specific statutory antitrust exemptions, even if well-meaning, should be resisted.

Michael McCann (Vermont, CNNSI) has a very interesting column on developments in Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA.   O’Bannon is challenging the NCAA’s licensing of the names, images and likenesses of former Division I college athletes for commercial purposes without compensation or consent.  McCann discusses the implications of O’Bannon’s motion to expand the class to include current players:

The prospect of O’Bannon v. NCAA radically reshaping college sports is real. If O’Bannon ultimately prevails, “student-athletes” and “amateurism” would take on new meanings in the context of D-I sports. While college athletes would still not obtain compensation for their labor, they would be compensated for the licensing of their identity. If O’Bannon instead extracts a favorable settlement from the NCAA, these athletes would likely be compensated as well.

Still, it’s early in the litigation process and, besides, the NCAA has a good record in court. The NCAA is sure to raise concerns about the new world of D-I college sports as envisioned by O’Bannon. For one, how a fund for current student-athletes is distributed and how former student-athletes are compensated will spark questions. Should star players get more? Would Title IX be implicated if male student-athletes receive more licensing revenue because they might generate more revenue than female student-athletes? Also expect some colleges and universities to bemoan that they cannot afford to contribute to player trusts unless they eliminate most of their teams and give pay cuts to coaches and staff. Along those lines, schools with large endowments or those with high revenue-generating teams may only become “richer” in a college sports world where certain schools have the financial wherewithal to compensate student-athletes while others do not.

Go read the whole thing.

 

 

The NCAA recently denied Todd O’Brien’s appeal to make use of the Grad Student Transfer Exception — which would allow O’Brien, who graduated St. Joseph’s with a degree in economics, to continue playing basketball while pursuing a graduate degree in Public Administration at University of Alabama-Birmingham.  St. Joe’s, apparently at the behest of a college basketball coach who appears to have has lost sight the purpose of college athletics, refused to allow O’Brien the exemption.  Its permission is required (and has apparently never been withheld in these circumstances).

O’Brien tells his story in a recent column at CNN-Sports Illustrated:

My name is Todd O’Brien. I’m 22 years old. In 2007, I became the first person from Garden Spot High (located in Lancaster County in New Holland, Pa.) to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. I attended Bucknell University from 2007 to 2008, where I made the Patriot League All-Rookie team. After the season, I decided the school and its basketball program weren’t the right fit for me. I wanted to follow the footsteps of my uncle Bruce Frank, a former Penn player, and play in the Big 5. I transferred and was given a full scholarship to play basketball at St. Joe’s for coach Phil Martelli. After sitting out in 2008-2009, I earned the starting center spot for the 2009-2010 season. Though our team struggled, I was able to start 28 games and led the team in rebounding. I also was the recipient of the team’s Academic Achievement award for my work in the classroom.

Entering the next season, I had aspirations of keeping my starting role, increasing my productivity on the court, and most importantly — winning more games. Off the court my goal was to continue getting good grades and to position myself to earn my degree studying Economics.

Things didn’t work out that way for O’Brien as the team struggled and St. Joe’s Coach Martelli opted to play younger players.  O’Brien increased his focus on academics, including graduate school options:
As the season went on things did not improve much, but on a brighter note I entered my last semester as an undergrad. On top of my regular classes, I had picked up an independent study internship at the Delaware County Municipal Building, where the focus of my study was on local economics.Though I still needed to pass three summer courses to officially earn my degree, I was allowed to walk in graduation that May. At the urging of my parents, my Economics advisor and other family friends, I began looking at graduate programs for the fall semester.

O’Brien ultimately decided he would take the summer courses, graduate early, and find a suitable graduate program.  Here is where things get ugly, according to O’Brien’s account:
I met with Coach Martelli to inform him that I would not be returning. I had hoped he would be understanding; just a few weeks before, we had stood next to each other at graduation as my parents snapped photo. Unfortunately, he did not take it well. After calling me a few choice words, he informed me that he would make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate. He also said that he was going to sue me. When he asked if I still planned on leaving, I was at a loss for words. He calmed down a bit and said we should think this over then meet again in a few days. I left his office angry and worried he would make me drop the classes.
A few days later I again met with Coach Martelli. This time I stopped by athletic director Don DiJulia’s office beforehand to inform him of my decision. I told him I would be applying to grad schools elsewhere. He was very nice and understanding. He wished me the best of luck and said to keep in touch. Relieved that Mr. DiJulia had taken the news well, I went to Coach Martelli’s office. I told him that my mind had not changed, and that I planned on enrolling in grad school elsewhere. I recall his words vividly: “Regardless of what the rule is I’ll never release you. If you’re not playing basketball at St. Joe’s next year, you won’t be playing anywhere.”
St. Joe’s never agreed to sign the release.  O’Brien appealed to the NCAA.  Here is his account:

With no movement on Saint Joseph’s end, my faith was left in the hands of a five-member NCAA committee. I pleaded my case, stating how St Joe’s was acting in a vindictive manner and how the NCAA must protect its student-athletes. When it was my turn to speak, I talked about how much it would hurt to lose my final season of college basketball, not just for me but for my parents, sisters and all of my relatives who take pride in watching me play. To work so hard for something, waking up at 6 a.m. to run miles on a track, spending countless hours spent in the gym shooting, and to have it all taken away because a head coach felt disrespected that I left in order to further pursue academics? It’s just not right.

Later that day the NCAA contacted UAB to inform the school that my waiver had been denied. The rules state that I needed my release from St. Joe’s, and I didn’t have it. I am the first person to be denied this waiver based on a school’s refusal. I was crestfallen. The NCAA has done a lot for me in life — I’ve gotten a free education, I’ve traveled the country playing basketball, and for all of this I am thankful. But in this instance I think they really dropped the ball. To deny a grad student eligibility to play based on the bitter opinion of a coach? You can’t be afraid to set precedent if it means doing the right thing.

My lawyer continues to plead to St Joe’s to release me, but the school no longer will discuss the issue. When my parents try to contact Coach Martelli, Don Dijulia, or President Smithson, they hide behind their legal counsel. When we try to contact the legal counsel, they hide behind the NCAA. A simple e-mail from any one of them saying they no longer object to me playing would have me suited up in uniform tomorrow, yet they refuse.

So here I am, several states away from home, practicing with the team every day, working hard on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom. I keep the faith that one day (soon, I hope) somebody from St. Joe’s will step up and do the right thing, so if that day comes I’ll be ready. I just finished my first semester of grad classes, and I enjoy it a lot. When somebody asked if I would be leaving to try to play overseas now that I’ve been denied the ability to play here, I said no. I said it before and I’m sticking to it — I’m here to get a graduate degree.

Whenever I get frustrated about the situation, I think back to something my mother told me on the phone one day. “This isn’t the end of basketball. Basketball ends when you want it to, whether that’s next year, in five years, or in 50 years. You control your relationship with the game, and nobody, not St. Joe’s, not the NCAA, can take that away from you.”

But right now, they sure are trying to.

If O’Brien’s account is even close to accurate, St. Joe’s — and especially Coach Martelli — should be ashamed of themselves.  As should the NCAA. The latter is nothing new.  But Coach Martelli and St. Joe’s has the opportunity to correct this — and they should.
Good luck to O’Brien.

The NFL Lawyers Up

Josh Wright —  14 March 2011

For a possible antitrust suit following from the players’ decertification:

The National Football League geared up for its antitrust battle against players Saturday by hiring two prominent attorneys for its legal team.

David Boies, who represented Al Gore in the Bush vs. Gore case following the 2000 election, and who last year won a $1.3 billion copyright infringement verdict for Oracle, will represent the N.F.L. in the suit brought by players against the league after the dissolution of the players union Friday. He is considered one of the country’s leading trial lawyers.

Also joining Gregg Levy, the longtime outside counsel for the N.F.L., will be Paul Clement, who served for three years as the U. S. Solicitor General for President George W. Bush and who has argued more than 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hearings in the injunction players are seeking to lift the lockout planned by team owners could begin as early as next week.

NYTMichael McCann provides a nice review of the state of play and where things are likely to go from here.

 

Packers, LLC?

Larry Ribstein —  1 February 2011

Just in time for the Super Bowl the New Yorker writes about the non-profit Packers — the only NFL team organized in this form.  The argument for the NFL rule barring anymore non-profits is that it takes a lot of money to run an NFL franchise.  But the article says

Green Bay stands as a living, breathing, and, for the owners, frightening example, that pro sports can aid our cities in tough economic times, not drain them of scarce public resources. Fans in San Diego and Minnesota, in particular, where local N.F.L. owners are threatening to uproot the home teams and move them to Los Angeles, might look toward Green Bay and wonder whether they could do a better job than the men in the owner’s box. And if N.F.L. owners go ahead and lock the players out next season, more than a few long suffering fans might look at their long suffering franchises and ask, “Maybe we don’t need owners at all.” It has worked in Green Bay—all the way to the Super Bowl.

This called to mind Usha Rodrigues’s recent Entity and Identity, which discusses non-profits’ benefits of creating (per the abstract) “a special ‘warm-glow’ identity that cannot be replicated by the for-profit form.” Usha discusses, among other examples, the Packers and the Cubs.

The Cubs were the subject of Shlenksy v. Wrigley, 95 Ill. App. 2d 173, 237 N.E.2d 776 (1968), in which an owner challenged the majority shareholder’s refusal to put lights in Wrigley field.  As Usha says (footnotes omitted):

The case illustrates the power of the business judgment rule: directors’ actions cannot be questioned absent fraud, illegality, or conflict of interest. For our purposes, what is interesting is that it appears that Wrigley, who owned 80% of the firm’s shares, may have been interested in running the corporation in a way that “protect[ed] values such as tradition and concern for neighbors, even at the expense of short term profit.” While the business judgment rule provides a shield, nevertheless majority owners in a for-profit organization such goals and motives are vulnerable to attack by minority shareholders. In contrast, the nonprofit structure of the Packers ensures that a Shlenksy-style suit could never even be brought against the management.

George Will has written (in Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts 311 (1978)) that when, back in the pre-Tribune days, he sought to buy stock in the Cubs a substantial Cub shareholder told him to ignore “price-earnings ratios, return on capital, and a bunch of other hogwash which has no place in a transaction between two true sportsmen.”  Usha is suggesting that it that’s so, the team should make it official and use the non-profit form.

But do you really need a non-profit corporation to ensure the preservations of lofty ideas?  In my Accountability and Responsibility in Corporate Governance I stress the capaciousness of the business judgment rule in accommodating this objective.  After all, Wrigley’s emphasis on traditionalism and no lights helped build a powerful franchise and cement Chicagoans to the team despite the use of the for-profit form.

Usha may have a point that the non-profit form does it better by better signaling the firm’s objectives.  But, as with everything, there are tradeoffs.  Agency costs might be higher in non-profits, which have no owners in the sense of residual claimants to discipline managers. 

It might be better to have a hybrid form, which locks “warm glow” into the for-profit form.  You might do that in a conventional for-profit corporation, and Wrigley did succeed in fighting off the challenge in Shlensky.  But you never know when the rigid precepts of the corporation, including fiduciary duties, will rear up in court and defeat the parties’ idiosyncratic objectives.

That’s where LLCs come in.  As I argue at length in my Rise of the Uncorporation, the flexibility of the LLC form allows the owners to tailor it to their needs without worrying they will be bit by centuries of corporate law.  Even here, uncertainty may arise when the for-profit nature of the firm clashes with “warm glow” objectives.  For example, unless the LLC operating agreement locks the issue down tight, and unless the firm is organized under the clear pro-contract principles of Delaware law, the managers of a “Packers, LLC” turn down a very lucrative bid to leave Green Bay?

A variation on the LLC, the “low profit LLC,” or “L3C,” addresses this problem by providing for a firm that has owners but that commits not to make profits a significant objective of the firm.  I’m skeptical, however, that these firms solve more problems than they create.  See the above book at p. 161 and an earlier blog post.

The bottom line is a “warm glow” is one of the many things that uncorporations do better than corporations. Even so, I’m not suggesting that we need to tinker with the Packers.

In response to a week with what the NFL perceives to be a large number of tackles causing injury, the league is ready to announce a new policy in which players will be suspended for certain hits the league deems to dangerous or too likely to cause injury.  This is a change from the NFL’s former policy in which the default rule was to impose a fine on players.

In particular, during games this week there were three hits that drew the attention of the league.   As this ESPN story describes the plays in question:

  • The Eagles’ DeSean Jackson and the Falcons’ Dunta Robinson were knocked out of their game after a frightening collision in which Robinson launched himself head first to make a tackle. Both sustained concussions.
  • Ravens tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather that Heap called “one of those hits that shouldn’t happen.”
  • The Steelers’ James Harrison sidelined two Browns players with head injuries after jarring hits. An NFL spokesman said one of the tackles, on Joshua Cribbs, was legal. The Browns were more upset about Harrison’s hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, which the league is reviewing.

On Tuesday morning, an NFL VP of Football Operations announced the likely change in policy:

We’ve got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability. We have to dispel the notion that you get one free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots.

The article also notes that while there have been suspensions for hits deemed “egregious” or “flagrant” in the past, the default rule has been fines or ejections.  Hold aside the interesting questions about what is causing the increase in these types of hits (during the Monday Night Football broadcast, Hall of Fame QB Steve Young hypothesized that the problem was incompetent quarterbacking and WR play in the form of failing to distinguish man from zone defenses, leading to more frequent situations in which wide receivers are catching the ball in vulnerable positions).  Also holding aside the appropriateness of the NFL policy for a moment, which strikes me at first blush as an overreaction to the events of a single week and inextricably intertwined with the larger and much more complicated issue of concussions in football, the announced policy change in presents some interesting economic issues concerning optimal sanctions.

Continue Reading…

Like Larry, I’ll be at Cato on Constitution Day.  TOTM will be well represented.  While Larry covers Jones v. Harris and mutual funds, I’ll have my sights on the Roberts Court’s recent decision in American Needle v. NFL.   See you there!

The abstract of my paper (co-authored with Judd Stone), Antitrust Formalism is Dead!  Long Live Antitrust Formalism! Some Antitrust Implications of American Needle v. NFL , is here:

Antitrust observers and football fans alike awaited the Supreme Court’s decision in American Needle v. National Football League for months – inspiring over a dozen articles, and even one from the quarterback of the defending champion New Orleans Saints. Yet the implications of the Court’s decision, effectively narrowing the scope of the “intra-enterprise immunity” doctrine to firms with a complete “unity of interests,” are unclear. While some depict the decision as a schism from the last several decades of antitrust law, we explain why this interpretation is meritless and discuss the practical impact of the Court’s holding. The Court’s antitrust jurisprudence over the past several decades, including that of the Roberts Court and American Needle, has broadly embraced rules that are both relatively easy to administer as well as conscious of the error costs of deterring pro-competitive conduct. Intra-enterprise immunity potentially provided such a “filter” that enabled judges to dismiss a non-trivial subset of meritless claims prior to costly discovery. The doctrine, however, proved notoriously difficult to consistently apply in situations involving common organizational structures. Consistent with error-cost principles that have been the lodestar of the Court’s recent antitrust output, American Needle gave the Court an opportunity to effectively abandon intra-enterprise immunity in favor of the Twombly “plausibility” standard. Rather than marking a drastic change in antitrust jurisprudence, therefore, American Needle should be viewed as the Supreme Court substituting an unreliable screening mechanism in favor of a more cost-effective alternative.

As the guys at MR would say…(ESPN).   Hair insurance edition: 

Just call Troy Polamalu the man with the million dollar hair.  The long, flowing black hair that tumbles out of Polamalu’s helmet and down his back — it’s nearly three feet long — has been insured for $1 million by Head and Shoulders, the shampoo brand that is endorsed by the Pittsburgh Steelers safety.  The insurance was obtained through Lloyd’s of London, which did not reveal what must be done to Polamalu’s hair for anyone to collect on the policy.  Polamalu’s hair has been targeted by an opposing NFL player at least once — the ChiefsLarry Johnson tackled Polamalu by the hair during a 49-yard interception return in a 2006 game.  Polamalu, a five-time Pro Bowl player, wears his hair long as a tribute to his Samoan heritage.

There’s a photo of the offending Larry Johnson tackle on the right.

This commercial is funny.

And most importantly: Go Steelers!

My take on American Needle, forthcoming in the Cato Supreme Court Review and co-authored with Judd Stone.  I’ll be discussing the paper at the Cato Institute Constitution Day on September 16th, and as luck would have it, on a panel with co-blogger Larry Ribstein (who will be offering his take on Jones v. Harris) is available for download from SSRN here.

Antitrust observers and football fans alike awaited the Supreme Court’s decision in American Needle for months – inspiring over a dozen articles, and even one from the quarterback of the defending champion New Orleans Saints. Yet the implications of the Court’s decision, effectively narrowing the scope of the “intra-enterprise immunity” doctrine to firms with a complete “unity of interests,” are unclear. While some depict the decision as a schism from the last several decades of antitrust law, we explain why this interpretation is meritless and discuss the practical impact of the Court’s holding. The Court’s antitrust jurisprudence over the past several decades, including that of the Roberts Court and American Needle, has broadly embraced rules that are both relatively easy to administer as well as conscious of the error costs of deterring pro-competitive conduct. Intra-enterprise immunity potentially provided such a “filter” that enabled judges to dismiss a non-trivial subset of meritless claims prior to costly discovery. The doctrine, however, proved notoriously difficult to consistently apply in situations involving common organizational structures. Consistent with error-cost principles that have been the lodestar of the Court’s recent antitrust output, American Needle gave the Court an opportunity to effectively abandon intra-enterprise immunity in favor of the Twombly “plausibility” standard. Rather than marking a drastic change in antitrust jurisprudence, therefore, American Needle should be viewed as the Supreme Court substituting an unreliable screening mechanism in favor of a more cost-effective alternative.

It was a fun project to work on, and a challenging one since so much had been written in anticipation of the opinion.  We appreciate the invitation from Cato.  As the abstract suggests, we focus on the role of the single entity defense as an early stage filter in the antitrust system designed to minimize error costs, how American Needle (perhaps with good reason) rejects that filter, the relationship between American Needle and Twombly, and how the case fits into the existing and ever-growing Roberts Court antitrust jurisprudence.  Enjoy.

Michael Jordan says he would have never called Larry Bird or Magic Johnson to join forces because “honestly, I was trying to beat those guys.”  Jordan catches himself, notes its a different era now, and concludes about the LeBron-Wade-Bosh cooperation that he “can’t say that’s a bad thing.”   Dan Shaugnessy (ESPN) recounts how Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson refused to talk to non-Cardinals teammates during all-star games.  There is Reggie Miller and the Knicks.  The intense rivalry between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier is legendary.   Ray Lewis and anyone.  Shaugnessy suggests that the decline in intense rivalry is a bad thing for sports.  I tend to agree.

Here’s Bill Simmons again on the LeBron decision:

I think it’s a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don’t you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you? That’s why I’m holding out hope that LeBron signs with New York or Chicago (or stays in Cleveland), because he’d be saying, “Fine. Kobe, Dwight and Melo all have their teams. Wade and Bosh have their team. The Celtics are still there. Durant’s team is coming. I’m gonna go out and build MY team, and I’m kicking all their asses.” That’s what Jordan would have done. Hell, that’s what Kobe would have done.In May, after the Cavs were ousted in the conference semifinals, I wrote that LeBron was facing one of the greatest sports decisions ever: “winning (Chicago), loyalty (Cleveland) or a chance at immortality (New York).”

The quotes I’ve seen from Jordan, Barkley and others suggest that this just isn’t something that they would have thought of doing.  Sports culture has changed.  But is that a good thing or a bad one?  The optimal level of rivalry isn’t zero.  As Shaugnessy points out, there are significant benefits to rivalry from the perspective of the consumer in terms of creating more heated team rivalries, more intense individual rivalries, both of which can lead to great sports moments.  But this sort of intense inter-player rivalry (hatred seems to strong) is apparently declining across many sports with obvious changes in the sports culture, including, but not limited to, compensation and age.  But the optimal level cannot be infinite either.  There are some costs to increasing this sort of rivalry at the margin.  Some are obvious.  It could lead, at least in this case, to a narrowing of the distribution of talent across the league.  I don’t see why this would be a good thing on average.  But fans obviously will enjoy watching the Miami Heat show, whatever happens.  That counts for something I guess.

I can’t help but think these developments are bad for sports fans.   Is there a more optimistic story about the decline of real, intense rivalry in sports that I’m missing?  Enough has been said about whether LeBron’s “decision” and how he did it.  I’m not talking about that.  As a sports fan, I think I’m worse off for a sports world where this sort of coordination is the norm.  Should I?  Do you?