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Rhetoric ramps up regarding American Needle case

Though we prefer to focus our attention in the days after the conclusion of the regular season on the coaching carousel and the coming Super Bowl tournament, the United States Supreme Court for some reason didn’t consult with us before scheduling oral arguments in a potential landmark antitrust case involving the NFL.

Go figure.

Next week, the interested parties will appear in D.C. before the nine justices of the highest court in the land and articulate contentions regarding whether the NFL is a “single entity” under a specific aspect of the federal antitrust laws.

The case arises from a challenge to an exclusive apparel deal the league struck with Reebok. American Needle thinks that the NFL constitutes 32 separate and distinct businesses, and that by law the teams/businesses should not be allowed to come together and decide, for example, to do business with only one vendor.

Some believe that the NFL hopes to obtain a broader ruling that, for any and all purposes, the league is one integrated business, which therefore cannot violate antitrust laws because an integrated business can’t by law conspire with itself.

We’ve previously explained that the NFL Players Association specifically fears that the league will try to use such a ruling to block one of the union’s primary defenses to a work stoppage. Though the NFL as a single entity would still be forced to collectively bargain with the players, the players’ ace in the hole in the event of a lockout entails the union disbanding and the players collectively suing the league for violating antitrust laws by imposing league-wide rules regarding player salaries, free agency, and the draft.

Basically, the union would use against the league the very procedures that the labor agreement allows the league to employ.

Based on our current understanding, we believe that the Supreme Court will find that the NFL is a single entity for some purposes, but not for others. When it comes to acquiring players, we believe that the 32 teams are in clear competition and are separate and distinct businesses.

Still, the union is sounding the alarm regarding the possibility that the NFL will obtain a ruling that it is, in all contexts and settings, one large business with 32 franchises. Most recently, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has attached his name to an op-ed item that he surely didn’t write, unless he has obtained a law degree on the side. The column is dated January 10; it apparently will appear in Sunday’s edition of the Washington Post.

The obvious goal? To keep the NFL from slipping an excessively broad ruling through the five hole of the judicial robe -- and to make clear to the controlling majority of justices known to be friendly to the interests of Corporate America that the folks who’d be affected negatively by innocuously-worded legal mumbo jumbo are paying close attention to the situation.

At some point over the next few days, I’ll be taking a close look at the briefs submitted by the NFL and other interested parties, and I’ll be addressing the situation in more detail. (So much for ditching the law practice.)

We realize that most of you don’t care about the issue. But all of you should -- if the union’s fears are accurate and if the NFL wins, the league arguably will have the tools to crush the NFLPA into submission.

But at least we now know what Brees was doing last week, when he wasn’t preparing to play the Carolina Panthers.