SUPREME COURT justices have been complaining, with some reason, about the proliferation of lawsuits based on wacky legal theories. A case before them provides an opportunity to do something about that. The court should be warned, though, that this is something about which feelings of the strongest kind are aroused -- on both sides. It involves the National Football League and the Los Angeles (formerly Oakland) Raiders, and the question is whether a professional sports league can have a say over the location of its franchises.
To many the answer will seem obvious: of course it can. Legally, the National Football League is a set of contracts, which the owners of every team -- they range from the widow of Carroll Rosenbloom to the city of Green Bay -- sign. They join together to produce a single product, the entertainment -- no, it's not a religion -- known as professional football. They agree to play by a set of rules determined in a certain way, with a specified schedule. They agree to split television revenues. They agree that teams will have exclusive rights to sign players and can draft college players. And they agree that no franchise can be moved from one city to another without the approval of three-quarters of the teams' owners.
The NFL set about enforcing the last of these rules in 1980 when Al Davis, the owner of the Raiders, decided to move the team from Oakland to the more lucrative fields of Los Angeles. Mr. Davis counterattacked by arguing in court that the NFL's rules violated the antitrust laws. A Los Angeles judge and jury found for Mr. Davis, and the Raiders moved in 1982. The federal appeals court in San Francisco, a panel whose decisions have been reversed with startling regularity lately, upheld that decision, leaving the Raiders in Los Angeles and awarding Mr. Davis $34 million in treble damages for the NFL's supposed restriction of competition, even as he continues to enjoy the benefits of participation in the NFL.
It's hard to understand how even a home-town court failed to dismiss as preposterous the antitrust argument here. NFL teams are obviously not competitors as steel companies or computer software firms are; they are struggling not to put each other out of business but to stay in business together. To do that, they obviously have to act together in ways that wouldn't be allowed if they were entirely separate competitors. Applying the antitrust laws to intra-league agreements threatens the entire structure of professional sports.
Faced with Mr. Davis' move to Los Angeles and Robert Irsay's flight from Baltimore to Indianapolis, it might have been sensible for Congress to have passed legislation making it clear that the NFL's anti-movement clause is valid. But Congress decided to wait for the courts. The case on which the court's review is now sought provides an opportunity for it to speak clearly on this issue. If that discourages other teams from moving in violation of their own contracts, and if it should reduce the number of home-town lawsuits, so much the better -- for the court as well as (almost) everyone else.