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Court: NFL is 32 teams, not single business

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By JESSE J. HOLLAND
The Associated Press
Monday, May 24, 2010; 6:31 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court rejected the National Football League's request for broad antitrust law protection Monday, saying that it must be considered 32 separate teams - not one big business - when selling branded items like jerseys and caps.

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"Although NFL teams have common interests such as promoting the NFL brand, they are still separate, profit-maximizing entities, and their interests in licensing team trademarks are not necessarily aligned," said the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for an unanimous court.

The high court reversed a lower court ruling throwing out an antitrust suit brought against the league by one of its former hat makers, who was upset that it lost its contract for making official NFL hats to Reebok International Ltd.

American Needle, Inc. sued, claiming the league violated antitrust law because all 32 teams worked together to freeze it out of the NFL-licensed hatmaking business and gave Reebok an exclusive 10-year license.

The company lost and appealed to the Supreme Court but the NFL did as well, hoping to get broader protection from antitrust lawsuits.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello noted that the American Needle case still has to be tried in federal court in Chicago. "We remain confident we will ultimately prevail because the league decision about how best to promote the NFL was reasonable, pro-competitive, and entirely lawful," Aiello said.

Major League Baseball is the only professional sports league with broad antitrust protection. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the NCAA, NASCAR, professional tennis and Major League Soccer supported the NFL in this case, hoping the high court would expand broad antitrust exemption to other sports.

The National Football League Player Association praised the court's decision. NFLPA lawyer Richard Berthelsen said the decision "affirms our belief that the NFL should not be allowed to operate as a monopoly to the detriment of fans, players and the government."

Added NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith:

"Todays Supreme Court ruling is not only a win for the players past, present and future, but a win for the fans."

Stevens said NFL teams directly compete on many levels. Citing the two teams in this year's Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts, Stevens said that teams compete against each other "to attract fans, for gate receipts and for contracts with managerial and playing personnel."

"Directly relevant to this case, the teams compete in the market for intellectual property," Stevens said. "To a firm making hats, the Saints and the Colts are two potentially competing suppliers of valuable trademarks."


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