The Supreme Court yesterday blocked the National Football League's efforts to move the Los Angeles Raiders back to Oakland, in effect temporarily preventing the league from controlling team locations.
The justices, without comment, declined to hear the NFL's arguments that its team relocation rule is exempt from antitrust laws, leaving intact a lower federal appeals court ruling last May that the NFL is subject to those laws.
The high court's action means the Super Bowl champion Raiders, who moved to Los Angeles in 1982, may remain there, and that the U.S. Court of Appeals in California may begin to review a 1983 jury award of $49 million to the Raiders and the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In addition, attorneys for both the Raiders and the NFL said yesterday that the court's action likely would affect all other professional sports leagues except baseball, which enjoys an exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Both the National Basketball Association San Diego Clippers' move to Los Angeles earlier this year and the National Hockey League St. Louis Blues' proposed move to Canada are enhanced by the court's action yesterday, those lawyers said. Both cases are in litigation.
Baltimore's court challenge to the Colts' move to Indianapolis is not affected, attorneys said, because the city is not challenging the team on antitrust grounds.
Official league reaction to the court's action came in the form of a brief statement from a spokesman, who said the league is "disappointed" and will ask the court to hear the case again when the appeals court finishes reviewing the damages award.
But Moses Laskey, an attorney for the Raiders, said yesterday's action is "the end of the line for the NFL," and that it is "absolutely ridiculous" to think that the high court would review the case later.
One league attorney said the U.S. Appeals Court ruling left intact yesterday "wipes out the structure of a league" and could affect the league's powers to control scheduling and splitting gate receipts among teams.
Laskey sharply disagreed, saying the court's action does not mean that the league has no power to control franchise transfers or other matters of mutual interest. Laskey said the appeals court decision means only that the rules the league sets up must be reasonable under federal antitrust laws.
The league argued unsuccessfully that it is a single entity, like a partnership, and immune from antitrust laws. The Raiders and the Coliseum countered, successfully, that the league is composed of 28 teams that are separate legal entities.
Lawyers on both sides agreed that the NFL's rule requiring three-fourths of the league's 28 teams to approve a move is gone and that, until a new rule is fashioned, it appears the NFL can't do anything to prevent any team from moving wherever it wants.
Al Davis, managing general partner of the Raiders, was unavailable for comment. But Joseph Alioto Sr., a Raiders attorney, said from Hawaii that Davis has never said he has a right to move "anywhere, say Alaska. Davis has said he wants guidelines in our rules, so you can't act on whim, malice or caprice. and that's one of the things that the 9th Circuit found -- that the NFL acted on 'whim, malice and caprice,' instead of standards and reasonable guidelines."
The league or various cities with teams also could pressure Congress to exempt the NFL and other professional sports leagues from antitrust laws. When Congress reconvenes, Sen. Slade Gorton (R.-Wash.) plans to reintroduce his bill that would set federal guidelines for franchise shifts and would mandate NFL expansion teams for Baltimore and Oakland.
Mike McCaskey, president of the Chicago Bears, said Congress likely will have to determine how the NFL governs its franchises, the Associated Press reported. In the past, Congress has passed laws exempting the NFL from antitrust laws in areas of league mergers and television.
A league spokesman said the NFL was undecided whether to seek further antitrust exemptions from Congress. The spokesman said Commissioner Pete Rozelle would have no comment, and NFL owners reached yesterday had little to say.
Citing the likelihood of another appeal, owner Billy Sullivan of the New England Patriots said making any comment at this time "would be akin to jumping into the bathtub before the water was turned on . . . I can't believe any purpose would be served for us to second-guess the Supreme Court justices at this time."
Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke said, "I'm in no mood even to discuss the damn thing."
Earl Foreman, commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League, said yesterday's ruling does not give license to wholesale moving of pro sports franchises from city to city.
"The 9th Circuit (appeals court) said there can be intelligent and reasonable guidelines set," he said. "It's not Gabriel's horn blowing. It's a situation to sit down, read the court cases very carefully and see what will make sense. I know I will do it immediately."
He compared the case to the Spencer Haywood case that resulted in the NBA allowing underclassmen to be drafted. The NBA saw that the validity of the entire draft might be tested on antitrust grounds. So it came up with a rule allowing underclassmen to apply for the draft.
David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, said the NBA redrafted its relocation rules in light of the appeals court ruling in the Raiders case, and feels they now meet antitrust criteria.
The league did not approve or disapprove the Clippers' move, but took the issue to federal court in San Diego, where the case is about to come to trial. The San Diego federal court is part of the 9th Circuit.
In addition to its intraleague litigations, the NFL also is being sued on antitrust grounds by the 2-year-old United States Football League. The USFL, charging that the NFL is a monopoly, seeks treble damages amounting to $1.2 billion.
In New York, USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons said in a statement about yesterday's ruling:
"We . . . will be studying the impact of the decision since it will have ramifications for all professional sports leagues. However, it is apparent that under the law of the land, the NFL and its member clubs have been found to have conspired against one of its own clubs in violation of federal antitrust laws.
"If the NFL can conspire against one of its own, it certainly bolsters our contention that they have conspired against the USFL in violation of the antitrust laws."