Surdam, David George. The Big Leagues Go to Washington: Congress and Sports Antitrust, 1951-1989. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. viii+240. Notes, index, and appendices. $65 Hardcover.
Reviewed by Aaron L. Haberman
Ever since the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 with its prohibition on monopolies that result in a “restraint of trade,” Congress and the courts have struggled to apply its strictures in a consistent way to the realm of sports. Just recently, on September 30, 2015, a three judge panel for the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals held that the NCAA’s practice of prohibiting its athletes from making money on their names, images, and likenesses (NILs) violated antitrust rules. Curiously, in the same decision, the panel struck down a district court’s ruling from August 2014 that directed the NCAA to allow colleges to pay players up to $5,000 above the full cost of collegiate attendance for use of athletes’ NILs (deferred until after the athlete leaves school). Further court battles will ensue, but regardless of the outcome, it seems unlikely that Congress will put forth a legislative solution to the conflict. If its past actions regarding professional sports and antitrust issues are any indication, however, Congress could still play a meaningful role in how the dispute is ultimately resolved.
As David George Surdam, a sports economist at the University of Northern Iowa, shows in his recent book The Big Leagues Go to Washington: Congress and Sports Antitrust, 1951-1989, the U.S. Congress throughout the second half of the 20th century, while hosting numerous hearings on matters of professional sport antitrust, rarely passed meaningful legislation. Despite the paucity of legislation, Surdam argues that Congress “pressured owners to create new teams or relocate to regions without teams, approved national television contracts, and allowed mergers between rival leagues. He further added that the legislators notably rarely tampered with the leagues’ reserve clauses, reverse-order drafts of amateur players, or territorial rights, despite their concerns about these institutions. Such a system conferred significant advantages for incumbent owners” (p. 2). In other words, the threat of possible legislation, or the inability of Congress to act on matters of sports antitrust, helped shape the trajectories of America’s major sports in significant ways throughout a period when professional sports grabbed a stranglehold on American culture.
Focusing mostly on MLB and the NFL, with an occasional digression into the NBA, Surdam, who primarily relies on transcripts of Congressional hearings, chronicles the numerous occasions when Congress considered legislation exempting or clarifying antitrust laws as they pertained to professional sports. One of the vexing problems that Congress (and at times the courts) confronted has been how to treat sport leagues that are simultaneously made up of competing interests yet make decisions as a single entity that clearly run afoul of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Sherman act. For example, MLB’s decision in the early 20th century that all teams must charge a minimum price for game tickets was tantamount to price fixing, yet arguably necessary for its early economic vitality. Similarly, the decision of the NFL in 1961 to sign an exclusive television deal with CBS for all of its regular season games, replacing the piecemeal system where individual teams signed their own broadcasting deals with different networks, represented an economic game-changer for the league but could clearly be seen as a restraint of trade. The very question of whether MLB was really 16 separate competing companies or a single entity not only raised antitrust concerns, but pitted players against owners, and in some cases owners against owners. All three major sports leagues adopted some version of the amateur drafts and the reserve clause, giving individual teams the power over players for most — if not their entire — careers, spawning player resentment, lawsuits, and unionization. Restrictions on franchise relocation, particularly in the NFL, alienated certain owners, most famously in the case of Al Davis who in the early 1980s successfully sued the NFL on antitrust grounds to move his Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles.
To tackle these and other issues, Surdam, after background chapters covering the history of professional team sports and the larger economic arguments for and against the use of antitrust for sports’ leagues, divides the book roughly into four parts with clusters of chapters focusing on player rights, team relocations, broadcasting, and league mergers. The chapters within each section generally proceed in chronological order. What becomes clear through Surdam’s thorough covering of these issues is that Congress’s actions in sports antitrust reflected narrow concerns regarding their constituents and the broader American public’s enjoyment of sports, and not the well-being of players or the economic interests of the franchise owners. Congress, and the Supreme Court, took at face value the leagues’ claims that the amateur draft and reserve clause were necessary to maintain competitive balance. Only the rise of powerful players’ unions, arbitration, and fierce collective bargaining brought about free agency and some measure of independence for players. Conversely, in the 1950s numerous congressmen pushed and cajoled MLB to expand or at least relocate some franchises to new cities to reflect the demographic shifts of post-WWII America. Congress looked the other way when the NFL awarded franchises to Dallas and Minnesota in 1960 in a blatant attempt to undercut the emerging AFL. Louisiana Senator Hale Boggs guaranteed an NFL expansion team to New Orleans through his threat to hold up congressional consideration of the NFL-AFL merger in 1966. Congress arguably took its most aggressive action in sports antitrust in the early 1970s, when amidst rampant fan (read: constituent) complaint over the NFL’s practice of blacking out home games for local television audiences, it forced the NFL to allow broadcasts for local teams if the home games were sold out. In detailing these, and many other episodes, Surdam presents a wealth of evidence culled from an expansive reading of numerous Congressional hearings and Congressional Record transcripts. He also does a nice job of explaining fairly complex economic and business concepts making this book accessible to a scholarly audience beyond just economists.
For all of this book’s virtues, there is something left to be desired with Surdam’s choice of a thematic rather than a chronological organization. The constant jumping back and forth in time, even within the different sections, eliminates any sense of flow for Surdam’s narrative and robs him of opportunities to analyze the broader changes over time. He also misses a chance to expand the significance of his discussion by generally ignoring the larger historical context of post-WWII America. The reader never gets a full sense of why particular sports antitrust issues arose when they did, and what, if any, political significance there was to Congress’s general reluctance to take more legislative action either for or against professional sports leagues. Lastly, I was surprised that Surdam ignored the 1980s scandal involving the collusion by MLB owners to not sign free agent players. To be sure, this was a matter handled by the courts and not Congress, but it was an important development in the larger history of owner-player relations, and given Sudam’s discussion of other court cases (eg. Danny Gardella and Curt Flood), it seems a glaring oversight.
Those problems aside, Surdam has made a fine contribution to not only the history of sports antitrust, but more broadly to our understanding of how sports leagues and franchises rose to such economic and cultural power in modern America. Whereas other scholars have noted the factors of the economic boom of post-WWII America and the proliferation of television to the spread of sports’ popularity, Surdam makes a convincing case that Congress, through action and inaction, shaped that process as well. Given the aforementioned court battles over paying college athletes it would be interesting to know the extent and ways Congress over the years has weighed in on college athletic antitrust. Should anyone take up that task, The Big Leagues Go to Washington provides a good primer on many of the salient economic issues.
Aaron L. Haberman is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado. He is currently researching a book on the long distance running boom of the 1970s.