NFL says fighting moves is too costly Tagliabue asks antitrust break from Congress

November 30, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, fearing costly legal action if team owners try to stop the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore, pleaded with members of Congress yesterday to pass a law allowing the league to control franchise relocation.

A federal court battle such as one with Browns owner Art Modell, Mr. Tagliabue said, could cost the NFL billions of dollars in damages, especially if the case were tried before an unsympathetic judge and jury.

Ever since the NFL lost the only major court fight so far over a franchise move a decade ago, costing the league $50 million in damages, owners have dreaded the possibility of another such fight. Mr. Tagliabue yesterday pursued a congressional solution to allow the NFL to control future franchise moves.

The proposal would give the league immunity to antitrust lawsuits anytime it vetoed a team's relocation. The league then could use that immunity to protect a vote to prevent Mr. Modell from moving the Browns out of Cleveland.

"I think it's possible" that the Browns will stay in Cleveland, said Mr. Tagliabue, who testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday on franchise relocation. "I think it depends on whether the courts get their heads screwed on straight or if Congress straightens it out. Right now, antitrust laws are tearing the league apart."

Similar antitrust proposals for professional sports have been introduced for several decades, and only one -- a narrow 1959 bill allowing the NFL to pool its television revenues -- has been passed.

Three Ohio congressmen, Sens. John Glenn and Mike DeWine and Rep. Louis Stokes, will try again. They plan to introduce legislation that would give the NFL a limited exemption from antitrust laws, allowing the league and not individual teams to control the location of franchises.

Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, who led a delegation of about Browns fans in a demonstration before and after yesterday's hearing, supports the latest congressional efforts.

"We believe that Congress and only Congress has the power to stop this insanity," Mr. White said. "If you don't, no city will be safe."

It all started in 1982, when Al Davis moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles, defeated the NFL in an antitrust case and won $50 million in damages. Since then, the Colts have moved to Indianapolis in 1984, the Cardinals from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988 and this year the Raiders moved back to Oakland and the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis.

The NFL has been unable to block any of these moves because it fears losing another antitrust case, which requires the loser to pay triple damages.

"We have tremendous respect for the Browns fans, we have tremendous respect for the Baltimore fans, but we lost $50 million when we tried to protect another group of fans we had tremendous respect for, the fans of Oakland," Mr. Tagliabue said. "That's the nut of the problem."

This year, the NFL owners originally blocked the Rams' move to St. Louis, Mr. Tagliabue said. After the Rams threatened to file a $2.2 billion antitrust lawsuit, the owners backed down, finding the three-quarters majority to approve the move. There was too much money at stake.

"Do you think the owners of the NFL collectively believe it's in their best interest not to have a football team in Los Angeles, the second-largest media market?" Mr. Tagliabue said. "Then [if you sue], you're asking people in Cincinnati or Green Bay to pick up a $20 [million] or $30 million punitive damage award."

Several teams have seized on the NFL's fear of antitrust litigation, bombarding the league with lawsuits. The Raiders are suing the league again, this time for refusing to allow them to return to Oakland in 1994 instead of in 1995. So are several former owners of the New England Patriots. The NFL is suing the Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys on other matters.

Mr. Tagliabue is so concerned about losing antitrust cases because so much of the battle depends on the location of trial. In 1982, the Raiders won a favorable decision from a jury in Los Angeles, which was eager for another football team.

But the legal precedent that ultimately emerged in that case is unclear.

Some legal scholars say the NFL has complied with the Raiders decision, setting up specific guidelines, procedures and criteria for franchise relocation. Among the criteria are fan loyalty, public financial support, stadium adequacy and the team's financial health.

Other legal scholars outside of the NFL say that the league's criteria are too vague and that the owners are powerless to stop franchise relocation.

But according to Tulane law professor Gary R. Roberts, the NFL attorney in the first Raiders case, an antitrust fight now may be winnable.

The NFL can win for filing first. If the owners vote in mid-January to block the Browns' move to Baltimore, Mr. Roberts said, the NFL immediately should file for a declaratory judgment against Mr. Modell and the Browns in a friendly forum such as Cleveland.

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