The National Football League and its championship team, the Oakland Raiders, await a verdict after their 12-week court battle that could determine the movements of multimillion-dollar athletic teams for years.
At immediate stake is Raider principal owner Al Davis' effort to move his team from Oakland to the Los Angeles Coliseum, left empty by the Los Angeles Rams' 1978 decision to move to Anaheim, 25 miles away.
If the jury of seven women and three men now deliberating the Raider antitrust suit let Davis and the Oakland team move here, the decision may smooth the movement of other football teams from smaller, older stadiums to newer and bigger ones, or from northern cities with stagnant populations to the boom towns of the South and Southwest. Long term stadium leases and ties with their local communities are expected to keep most owners in place, however.
What the verdict will not settle is a feud between Davis, one of the most ambitious and clever team owners, and much of the rest of the league, led by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
U.S. District Court Judge Harry Pregerson gave Davis a boost last week when he ruled that the NFL is not a single enterprise, but a collection of businesses that may be sued for unreasonable restraint of trade under the Sherman Antitrust Act. NFL attorney Patrick Lynch had argued, as a first line of defense against Davis, that the suit had no merit because the league was a single organization incapable of conspiring with itself to restrain trade.
Al LoCasale, Raider executive assistant, said Davis decided to move to Los Angeles after concluding that rising salary demands from star athletes would make maoney extremely important important to the success of pro football teams in the 1980s. LoCasale said the Raiders extimate conservatively that they could make $45 million more during 10 years in Los Angels, with it 70,000- to 75,000-seat coliseum, than they would at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, which seats 54,600.
The league, through attorney Lynch, has argued at the trial that the Oakland stadium could provide Davis with sufficient income and that his move would betray Oakland area football fans who have strongly supported the team. Lynch told the jury, "If you decide . . . it's unreasonable . . . for a league to consider what a community has done for it, and for a league to act as a buffer between an individual owner and interests of the community and the public . . . then our business judgment and our belief on what the competitive marketplace is all about has been misplaced, and maybe professional sports aren't worth it at all."
The trial is about money and power. Davis insists other owners are trying to keep him from making enough money to keep his team winning. The league says it wants to prevent fan disenchantment and financial chaos that could hurt all the owners.
But the jury is considering more narrow issues, principally what Davis and other owners did or did not agree to at an October 1978 league meeting in Chicago.
Davis says he secured an oral agreement from other owners to let him move his team in return for a change in his vote on the league's rule concerning moves. By changing his vote from "no" to an abstention, Davis said, he allowed the league to reduce the number of votes needed to approve a move from all 28 teams to 21. Other owners deny such a deal was made, so the jury must decide who is telling the truth.
The jurors also must decide if that rule, section 4.3 of the league constitution, is an unreasonable bar to trade.
And they must decide whether the league treated Davis fairly. He argues that the league blocked his move to Los Angeles on a whim and interfered with his negotiations with stadium owners in Oakland and Los Angeles. He insists that the owners did not treat him as they did the late Carroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams' move to Anaheim was approved at the same 1978 league meeting after Rosenbloom spoke for only 15 minutes.
The Los Angeles Coliseum, eager for a tenant to replace the Rams, has joined the Raiders in suing the league. Coliseum attorney Maxwell M. Blecher told the jury the issue was "whether a group of 27 barons can sit around a table" and block Davis' efforts to better his team.
"What is this? Some kind of regimented society? Have we lost all sense of reason?" Blecher said in his closing arguments.
The jury began deliberating Wednesday after 55 days of testimony produced 30 witnesses and more than 10,750 pages of trainscript. Pregerson had the jury check into a hotel and said he would keep it sequestered until a verdict is reached.
As has much activity in professional football over the last year, the trial, in the end, revolves around the personality of Davis, and his acknowledged obsession with victory.Edwin Heafey Jr., the attorney for the Oakland Coliseum, argued that Davis never tried to win a better deal from Oakland and only sought to arrange his move south.
Heafey told the jurors Davis stays up nights watching football films to find weaknesses in his and other players. "That's how he looks at life," Heafey said. "He's looking for weaknesses in people."