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From the Archives: Judge Sotomayor’s Decision in the Clarett Case

2009 May 27
by Skip Sauer

In addition to her injunction which brought an end to the baseball strike of 1994 (on this, see Richard Sandomir’s piece in the NYT today), Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor played a significant role in the recent Maurice Clarett case. Clarett, of course, was a college football star who was running out of chances in the NCAA, and sued the NFL to overturn the eligibility rules which precluded a sophomore from entering the draft.

Here’s my commentary on Sotomayor’s ruling at the time, along with a renewed link to the decision itself. TSE’s old posts have lost their formatting over the years (nice one, blogger!) so I’ve copied the content in it’s entirety below.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004
3-0 to the NFL

The NFL won its appeal in the Clarett case. Greg Skidmore at the Sports Law Blog finds the decision satisfactory. I find it both illuminating and evasive.

Judge Sotomayor’s decision references a number of cases upholding the exemption of restrictions in collective bargaining agreements from antitrust, both in sports and elsewhere. The discussion is authoritative and informative. It notes that the exemption does not apply when the restriction imposes harm on business competitors who are not party to the contract. This is not the case here: the harm is imposed on an prospective employee who is not party to the contract.

The court points out that CBAs encompass numerous issues, and that selecting one clause for antitrust scrutiny may upset the balance of compromises among employers and employees. It is not obvious to me that this concern should protect an anticompetitive restriction – simply address the issues without violating the law! Nevertheless the sanctity and primacy of collective bargaining to this court is readily apparent in the decision, making it clear that an antitrust challenge faces heavy going. The decision clearly implies – and the 2nd circuit has said this before in reference to the NBA draft – that if the NFL wants to cap salaries, the union can offset the negative effect on their wages by limiting the wages paid to future players in subsequent drafts. Prospective players are clearly harmed by this, but the restriction passes muster under the 2nd court’s interpretation of the law.

The decision is evasive on two major counts. First, apart from mentioning the NFL’s claim that the rule protects young players from physical harm, the decision wastes nary a sentence on the issue. The reason is clear – since labor law trumps antitrust, there is no need to judge the reasonableness of the restraint. Second, in announcing this in unabashed terms, the court tiptoes around the real issue here:

In the context of this collective bargaining relationship, the NFL and its players union can agree that an employee will not be hired or considered for employment for nearly any reason whatsoever [emphasis added] so long as they do not violate federal laws such as those prohibiting unfair labor practices … or discrimination.

That the restriction is discriminatory is obvious. But youth is apparently not a protected class, unlike minorities or the elderly. I find this odd.

Not all courts allow collective bargaining as much latitude as the 2nd circuit. In the Mackey case, the “Rozelle rule” on free agent compensation was struck down by the eighth circuit. Following Supreme Court precedent, one of the tests applied was whether the restriction “primarily affects only the parties to the collective bargaining relationship.” This test clearly conflicts with the approach of the 2nd circuit to labor problems. The decision simply notes that the approaches disagree, and not surprisingly, the decision in Clarett sticks to the precedent adhered to in prior cases in their circuit. An appeal to the Supreme Court might establish which approach they prefer, and thus clarify matters.

I’m not as enamored with labor law as Judge Sotomayor, and I’m not as pleased with the decision as Skidmore. By resting so completely on its “labor law trumps antitrust” basis, the appeals court ducked the most interesting questions in the case. Nevertheless, the decision is clearly exposited and informative, so it will go on the reading list for my sports economics class.
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