It’s not often that a big corporation asks the Supreme Court to hear a case, then loses 9-0 — which is what happened to the National Football League on Monday. American Needle, a sports-cap company, sued the NFL over its apparel-marketing exclusive with Reebok. The NFL won in trial and appellate courts, then asked the Supreme Court to review the case, hoping to obtain a clear-cut exemption from antitrust law; instead, the NFL position was rejected unanimously. A decade ago, the Dolphins held a 30-7 fourth-quarter lead over the Jets yet managed to lose. This decision can appear the legal equivalent, although like many Supreme Court decisions, the ruling may say less than initially meets the eye.
Whatever this decision ultimately means, the circumstances of the case ought to unsettle football lovers. In my Tuesday Morning Quarterback persona, I’ve been warning for years that there is no law of nature that says professional football must remain the nation’s most popular and most lucrative sport. Each time the NFL behaves in a haughty manner, it flirts with turning off the public. In this instance, the league not only was trying to place its foot on a small family-run apparel manufacturer — based in President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois, no less — but also was hoping to parlay its stomping of a little guy into a wide-ranging antitrust immunity. The NFL was asking the Supreme Court to award it something Congress had declined to grant the league. That’s hubris.
In many aspects of its relationship with the public in recent years, the NFL has displayed behavior falling somewhere on the spectrum between haughty and arrogant, especially when the league’s very wealthy owners demand public subsidies or, as here, special exemptions. Lyle Denniston, a leading Supreme Court observer, put it this way: “The more professional sports in America acts like hard-nosed Big Business, and the less it seems like an idyllic revival of Olympian competition, the more it risks trouble with the federal antitrust laws.” The more it risks trouble, period — with public opinion, with Congress.