The future of our professional team sports hangs today in the balance. Decisions by Congress within the next few months may well determine whether baseball, football, basketball and hockey are to continue to flourish or whether they will be destroyed by unwise application of the laws of our land.
This situation has arisen as a result of a recent decision by the Supreme Court in the Radovich case (SI, March 11) which indicated, in effect, that professional football is an interstate business subject to the antitrust laws while professional baseball is not.
There has been a good deal of confusion as to just what the high court said in this important case. Actually, after calling football an interstate business—and hence subject to the antitrust laws—the court continued baseball's special exemption. Significantly, however, the majority decision added that, if this differentiation between football and baseball appeared "illogical," the "orderly way" to eliminate any apparent unfairness was through the enactment of remedial legislation by Congress.
Therefore, Congress has a definite mandate to clear up the muddled situation which has resulted from the Radovich decision. In effect, Congress has been appointed an umpire by the Supreme Court to decide whether professional team sports shall be subject to antitrust control or not.
June 16, 1957
The response of Congress to the court's mandate was immediate and diversified. Within a short time, three proposals were advanced by various members of Congress to end once and for all the confusion surrounding the relationship of our professional sports and the antitrust laws. These proposals will be the subject of hearings by the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, slated to begin June 17th. From these hearings may emerge recommendations for consideration of the entire House and Senate.
THREE DIFFERENT APPROACHES
The first approach, exemplified by the bills introduced by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York and Representative Patrick Hillings of California, would make baseball subject to antitrust laws. No other sports are mentioned. Enactment of this proposal would probably result in the court's striking down the reserve clause, which in effect makes a young potential star the property of his club, to be sold or traded only at the club's discretion, and outlawing various aspects of baseball's draft and farm systems.
A second method, as proposed in a bill introduced by Representative Oren Harris of Arkansas, would exempt professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey completely from antitrust regulation. This blanket immunity would prevent any appeal to the courts for any antitrust violations in any aspect of sports enterprises, including purely business operations.
A third method, which I am sponsoring, would exempt from antitrust law the aspects of professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey directly concerned with the sports themselves. This would include organization of leagues and associations, territorial agreements, employment of players and playing rules of the game. My own personal feeling is that the controversial reserve clause, option contracts, draft and farm systems, though essential to the structure of the games, may well be modified without endangering the basic foundations of the sports. I shall try during the hearings to find workable alternatives, but am determined not to condemn practices which are necessary to the continued success of these sports.
However, purely business aspects of these games, such as operation of concessions, sale of radio and television rights, management of stadiums, and purchase and sale of advertising would be subject to the antitrust laws.
Special provision is made in my bill to protect the organization and operation of players' associations and other concerted activities for the mutual aid or protection of sports participants.
My approach, which has been described as the "Square Deal for Sports Act," follows the middle ground between the first two proposals. Because it recognizes the necessary realities of modern professional sports, I believe it charts the sound course.
Certainly there is no disputing the fact that these four professional sports are businesses—and pretty big businesses. When you consider, for example, that more than 16½ million people watched major league baseball games last year, paying on the average about $1.25 apiece, you can get some idea of the size of the operation involved. And, when a superstar like Herb Score can be held to be worth $1 million or a Ted Williams draws a salary in the six-figure bracket, there can be no question that baseball—and the other sports to a lesser extent—represents a sizable business operation. The important point, however, and one that is often overlooked, is that these professional sports are unique businesses with unique practices, which should not be subject to the same laws as ordinary commercial enterprises. There is surely a lot of truth in what P. K. Wrigley of the Cubs once said: "Baseball is too much of a business to be a sport and too much of a sport to be a business." What Mr. Wrigley was saying—and I agree with him completely—was that baseball is a business, but much more, too. This applies, of course, to the other major professional team sports as well.
Starting with the premise that the peculiar needs of professional sports make certain unique practices necessary, it is clear that Congress should not apply to sports the same laws it applies to U.S. Steel or General Motors. That is the approach envisaged in my Square Deal for Sports Act.
In any consideration of sports on the American scene, our principal concern must be to avoid interfering with the pleasure of the great masses of fans who derive such enjoyment from witnessing these games. What does the public want from professional sports? In a word, it wants to see good, clean games played between teams of near-equal strength. If the home-town team can't win every game, at least the fans want to see a good contest.
On the other hand, players want—and deserve—good salaries and the opportunity to develop into topnotch performers. And the owners need the incentive which comes not only from profit potential, but from the opportunity to build and plan for better teams and greater box-office appeal.
The point which regulatory zealots tend to overlook is that our professional team sports are doing a remarkably good job of ruling their own roosts and doing the maximum justice to the people involved in watching, participating in or investing in the sports. Each of the four sports mentioned in my bill has worked out procedures by itself which it feels best serve the ends of the greatest number of people.
A great deal has been said about the reserve clause, option contracts, and the draft and farm systems employed in some of these sports. I would be the first to object if it were shown that in actual practice these aspects were detrimental to the public, players or to the sports themselves. But from my studies of the situation, I am convinced that there are inherent safeguards in these sports offering protection against the abuses which on the surface might seem probable. And it is a fact that generations of players have made no protest against the reserve clause and recognize it as a necessity in the structure of organized baseball. Therefore I feel it must be retained until a workable alternative is formulated which will not ruin the game.
Where would baseball be without the reserve clause? Without it, the big leagues could easily become dominated by three or four of the richer clubs, who would become the "haves" by virtue of being able to lure players through larger salaries away from poorer clubs. The less wealthy clubs would become "have-nots," doomed to trail in the second division every year.
There would be less incentive for major league clubs to develop young players in their farm systems. As soon as a rookie became ripe for the big time, another club could offer him more money, grab him off and thus cost the team which developed him the thousands of dollars it had spent to train him in the minors.
And how could any baseball club make plans from season to season if it did not know what personnel would be available and what players would be nabbed by other teams?
The overruling consideration with all of these systems is that the operation of our professional team sports today is dependent on them. We should not force changes upon them. We should allow them to stick with their present procedures, which are producing generally favorable results, until improved and workable alternate systems are advanced.
However, there is no justification for putting the exemption umbrella completely over the sports. Certainly, the television and radio aspects of major league baseball, not to mention ball-park management, stadiums and concessions, represent substantial businesses in themselves. It is estimated that advertisers will spend $32 million for radio and television rights before the present season is over. Of this figure, organized baseball stands to receive roughly $9.3 million.
If there are any violations of public policy in the operation of these purely business matters, then our antitrust laws should be brought to bear on them. That is why my bill provides that the business aspects of professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey shall be subject to the Federal antitrust laws.
I am confident that our professional sports people will accede readily to regulation of these business operations when they realize the carrying on of the purely sports end of their business-is will not be hampered.
It is an extremely healthy sign that People in professional sports themselves appear to be conscious of the shortcomings and possible inequities in their operations. Particularly significant in this respect has been the gradual development—admittedly further advanced in baseball than in other sports—of players' associations and pension plans. The guaranteed wage of $6,000 and the incentive and security of pensions appear to be a good thing for all concerned in big league baseball. It is a cleaner game than it ever was before, and there is greater incentive today for players to stay in the game. Indeed, there have been inspired performances by veterans aiming for 10-year status. All these things may be attributed to the organization of pension plans.
THE RIGHT TO BARGAIN
It is to be hoped that these security assurances for the players will eventually be extended to all professional" sports. Because the players deserve a greater voice in their dealings with employers—doubly important because of the unique operations of professional sports and the short playing duration of most sports careers—the bill I have introduced in Congress specifically guarantees the right of players to bargain collectively for their mutual benefit.
The greatest danger which confronts us now is that overzealous application of the antitrust laws will destroy the enjoyment by America's fans of these great games. There is no good reason why a vendetta should be conducted against professional sports, and I am extremely hopeful no such movement will develop in the hearings to be held by the House Judiciary Committee.
Our professional sports form an integral and important segment of our national life.
The future of these sports truly hangs in the balance. I am confident that Congress will agree that the basic approach of separating the strictly business from the sports aspect of the games represents the best means both of insuring justice and fair play to players and owners and of continued unimpaired enjoyment by America's fans of these great pastimes.