City has grounds for suit against NFL, Alioto says

December 09, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

If, as Maryland officials allege, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke sought to keep Baltimore out of the NFL, it would violate the nation's antitrust laws, according to an attorney with a strong record of winning such cases against the league.

"They would have a damn good lawsuit," said Joseph L. Alioto, a San Francisco attorney.

Mr. Alioto, a former mayor of San Francisco, has won a number of cases against the NFL. In 1980, he defended the Raiders when the National Football League tried to block their move from Oakland to Los Angeles, and, more recently, ex-New England Patriots owner William Sullivan, who was barred by the league in 1988 from selling stock publicly in his team.

In both cases, Mr. Alioto argued that the league was overstepping its legal rights in controlling the individual teams. In 1982, Raiders owner Al Davis won the right to play in Los Angeles and $42 million in damages, split between the team and the L.A. Coliseum Commission. Two months ago, Mr. Sullivan won $114 million in damages from a jury that agreed he was forced to sell his team because he couldn't take it public.

"I just think that it's time that the monopoly of the NFL was challenged," Mr. Alioto said.

The league is illegally restricting competition and inflating the value of the franchises by preventing new, qualified clubs from joining, he said. Mr. Cooke and the Redskins would be especially vulnerable to that charge if they took actions to thwart Baltimore's NFL bid, he said.

However, Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Herbert J. Belgrad said, "We haven't even begun to consider litigation. All of our energies are aimed at getting a team for Camden Yards."

After last week's award of an expansion team to Jacksonville, Fla., NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he was not worried about the possibility of a lawsuit or teams relocating in the wake of expansion.

An attorney who opposed Mr. Alioto in the Raiders case agreed (( that a jury may find sympathy with Baltimore, although he disputed the legal grounds Mr. Alioto espouses.

"This whole area of the law is sufficiently screwed up that you don't know what a guy like Alioto could get a jury to go along with," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Tulane University school of law who assisted the league's defense in the Raiders case.

"There's no partnership in the world that is under the legal mandate to add any partners who want to join," Mr. Roberts said.

At issue in such cases are two conflicting views of the NFL. The league maintains it is a seamless partnership, free to set the terms of membership. Critics, such as Mr. Alioto, argue that the league is actually an association of competing businesses illegally colluding.

If evidence could be found that the Redskins interfered with the Baltimore franchise hunt, Mr. Roberts said, "Alioto would certainly be able to make a very sympathetic case."

League officials and owners say the Redskins did not actively work against Baltimore's application, although the team did support landslide winners Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

"It was not a factor. They [Redskins] never talked to me about it," said Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, the only owner to support Baltimore in the final vote.

However, league officials say their presentations of the competing expansion markets included reference to the number of Redskins season-ticket holders in Maryland and the fact the team may consider a move to the state.

Several team owners say they were swayed by the notion that Baltimore's market already was being served by the Redskins.

Mr. Alioto said cities should not be afraid of suing the league. "The only people who ever get anything out of them are the people that sue."

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