NFL & NBA lockouts: a UK lawyer's legal retrospective - Part 1
Published 22 December 2011 By: Kevin Carpenter
It cannot have escaped the attention of sports fans on the East side of the Atlantic, even those who do not follow US sports, that both the National Football League (‘NFL’) and the National Basketball Association (‘NBA’) have spent much of 2011 in protracted legal wranglings between the respective leagues (specifically the team owners) and their players as regards Collective Bargaining Agreements ('CBAs').
The media has made much of the West Side Story-esque posturing between the two sides in eventually reaching agreements in both sports, but little has been written of the interesting legal issues underpinning the disputes, particularly for UK lawyers and sports fans. This article will seek to compare and contrast the two sets of disputes and explain the principal legal issues.
The US sport model and CBAs
In the United States the NFL and NBA operate on the principle that no one team or franchise, or a small number of teams or franchises, should dominate their sport for a prolonged period of time, as has been seen in football with Manchester United in England and Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain. Indeed Robert Kraft, the well-known owner of the New England Patriots NFL team, said, when ending his interest in taking over Liverpool Football Club in 2005, he would not invest in football until there was a level playing field. Indeed I propose that a more appropriate term than level playing field is 'competitive equality'.
The key elements of this US model that seeks to achieve competitive equality are: an absence of promotion/relegation, the drafting of new players out of the US college system each year and a control of salaries. Yet the essential commercial and legal mechanism in place to achieve a competitive equality is that the players are owned by the individual leagues/team owners with agreements made through collective bargaining.1 This is in complete contrast to the model in European sport where there is individual contractual bargaining between clubs and players (and their agents) which, once agreed, means the ownership of the players rests with the individual clubs and not the league.
CBAs in US sport can be described as the labour blueprint between the players and the owners.2 They are hotly negotiated, lengthy documents, as they express the complete range of relationships between the management of the league and their athlete employees. They will cover what are termed ‘mandatory subjects’, and certain other areas, such as: team discipline, injury and non-injury grievances, base salaries, access to club and personal files, medical rights and retirement. It is easy to see why CBAs are very important but surely a league could, if needed, operate without one?
CBAs and the Law
CBAs are a mechanism in US sports which ensures harmony exists between labour (employment) law and antitrust (competition) law, both areas being primarily legislated at the federal level. Over a number of years US sports have been afforded, by both legislators and the courts, a number of special dispensations from antitrust law, the principal instrument being the Sherman Act passed in 1890. Understandably the application of the Sherman Act to sport has generated much controversy and litigation for decades. It is a potent piece of litigation as any damages awarded pursuant to it are automatically trebled (for private claimants), a concept not familiar to many jurisdictions including the UK.
Section 1 (§1) of the Sherman Act makes illegal "every contract, combination in the form of a trust or otherwise, or, conspiracy, in restraint of trade". This is applicable to sports in the US because even though the leagues themselves are unincorporated associations of independently owned organisations, courts have held that they are capable of contracting, combining or conspiring to restrain trade through concerted action.3 On the other hand, as the teams in a league share certain common interests and business objectives (for instance: preserving the competitive balance, maximising broadcast revenue and promoting the league) then it is inevitable that there is some degree of cooperation and agreement among teams which is fundamentally anti-competitive4. Therefore CBAs, which cover the common business objectives of the team owners, are in essence anti-competitive agreements.
However, the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 permits employees to organise as a collective bargaining unit, therefore allowing the employer to negotiate a contract that governs all covered employees as one unit.5 Indeed Congress (the US legislature) favours the process of collective bargaining rather than having to ask the court to intervene on labour disputes (see Brown v Pro Football, Inc.5). This is because where the courts have had to intervene in the past it has to, under rule of reason analysis, undertake a complex examination of labour practices in each case and determine whether or not they are reasonable; bearing in mind that some restraints are necessary as legitimate business practices. Therefore, a doctrine known as the ‘non-statutory labour exemption‘ has developed which protects the product of collective bargaining from attack under antitrust law. It is important to note that it is not just the CBAs themselves that are protected but the exemption also extends to where a CBA does not exist, or has expired, as long as a bargaining relationship still exists.8
Taking the allowance of a collective bargaining unit one step further, the National Labour Relations Act (‘NLRA’) passed in 1935 guarantees employees the right to form a labour union and requires employers to deal with a duly-elected union as the bargaining agent for the employees. The players in both leagues have labour unions, the National Football League Players Association (‘NFLPA’) and National Basketball Players Association (‘NBPA’), who as we will see are main actors in the disputes that ensued.
So what relevance does this have to the recent NFL & NBA disputes?
The NFL & NBA disputes were fundamentally related to their respective CBAs that were coming to an end and therefore due for re-negotiation. Many of the legal issues in the two cases were similar but first let’s look briefly at the commercial issues and drivers behind the fallouts between players and owners.
The NFL has been described as “one of America’s best run businesses”9 and leads American professional sports in terms of revenue, income and value. One of the key factors in this success is the fact that approximately 60% of total revenue in the NFL is generated centrally and distributed evenly among the 32 teams. Indeed this business model is unique to the NFL, the NBA for instance does not generate and share such a large quantity of central revenue, rather it relies more on gate receipts and local media.10 From this it is hardly a surprise that the main bone of contention in the NFL dispute was how this champion revenue should then be split between owners and players.
The NBA faced a similar issue regarding the owner/player split of so-called basketball-related income (‘BRI’) for each team (e.g. ticket sales, TV contracts, merchandise), but unlike the NFL, the NBA was not awash with money due to the previously stated differences in the business models. In fact during the previous season the owners claimed that 22 of the league's 30 teams were due to make a loss for the season totalling $340m. To resolve this the owners wanted a number of fundamental changes made to the league and therefore the CBA (some of which the NFL already had in place) in addition to a change to the BRI split: a ‘hard’ salary cap, a diminishment in player compensation and the end of the guaranteed contract (among others). The significance of these proposed radical changes is that the NBA is a league where the players traditionally hold the power. Indeed they are far better paid than their peers in the NFL, with the NBA average salary over 2.5 times greater than the average NFL salary.11 However, this also means the players had far more to lose financially from a prolonged impasse in negotiations over a new CBA than the NFL players, and conversely the owners could afford to dig their heels and force the players to make some significant concessions.
The consequences of a breakdown in negotiations and expiry of CBAs
In the months leading up to the expiration of their respective CBAs the two sets of owners and players associations attempted to negotiate new deals but ultimately failed. This left the following legal options available to the parties:
- Continue to work and negotiate in the absence of a CBA;
- Players strike using a right under the NLRA, or formally decertify their respective union and bring an antitrust case, or the union essentially walks away from the players by way of the simpler process of a 'disclaimer of interest’; or
- Owners prevent the players from working by way of lockout (which would for example include denial of access to training and medical facilities) or impose their ‘last, best offer’ (which would in essence be forcing the players to take it, leave it or decertify their union).
In Part 2 (click here) I will be taking a look at how legally the NFL lockout played itself out.
By Kevin Carpenter, Executive Contributor at LawinSport.com and trainee solicitor at SJ Berwin LLP, with experience in commercial and competition issues. You can follow him on twitter @kevswfc55 and on LinkedIn.
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- Tags: Competition Law | Employment Law | Governance | Lockout | National Football League (NFL) | NBA | NBPA | NLRB | Regulation | United States of America (USA)
- NFL & NBA lockouts: a UK lawyer's legal retrospective - Part 3
- NFL & NBA lockouts: a UK lawyer’s legal retrospective - Part 2
Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.