If corporate greed is good for democracy, why not the NFL?

By Kevin Horrigan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

(MCT)

Attention, billionaires! Call now! The time is ripe to buy the St. Louis Rams.

Sure, they were 1-15 last year. But they addressed that last week by firing their trainer, who apparently was responsible for all the injuries and flu that sidelined their otherwise excellent players.

Sure, their as-yet-unpaid-for stadium is said to be deficient, but that's the taxpayers' problem, not yours. Besides, lots of cities have stadium problems. Next Sunday's Super Bowl is being played in a 22-year-old stadium that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says is no longer good enough to host Super Bowls.

If you call now, you can get the Rams at a deep, deep discount. According to the St. Louis Business Journal, the asking price for the team has dropped 16 percent, from $900 million to around $750 million. Last year, a guy named Stephen Ross completed a deal for the Miami Dolphins and their crummy old stadium for $1.1 billion.

By these standards, $750 million for the Rams and their soon-to-be-breakable lease on their crummy new stadium is a 41 percent discount for control of an NFL franchise. On the other hand, you're only buying 60 percent of the Rams; 40 percent remains in the hands of Wal-Mart in-law Stan Kroenke.

But here's the best part: In the next couple of months, the U.S. Supreme Court might decide to exempt the NFL from the Sherman Antitrust Act. That could mean the league's 32 teams could act as a single entity in negotiating contracts. All that unseemly competitiveness over labor, all that complicated folderol about cap limits and franchise tags could be a thing of the past.

Instead of having to give 60 percent of your revenue to players every year, you could give them whatever you wanted and keep the rest. You could pay off the nut in no time at all.

Before Jan. 21, I would have said the NFL would lose its case in American Needle v. NFL. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Jan. 13, and the justices seemed skeptical of the NFL's claims that the league and its 32 franchises are a single entity when they (excuse me, "it") negotiate contracts.

The case was brought by American Needle Inc., a small family-owned cap business in Buffalo Grove, Ill., in the Chicago suburbs. American Needle used to make souvenir caps for some NFL teams. But in 2001, the NFL negotiated a league-wide apparel contract with Reebok.

American Needle sued and lost on relatively narrow grounds in lower courts. But the NFL decided not to settle for the field goal. It joined American Needle in seeking Supreme Court review on broader antitrust grounds, seeking acknowledgement that the league is not really a partnership of competing enterprises, but a single enterprise.

In oral arguments, the justices seemed skeptical, suggesting that lower courts should decide which business enterprises were essential to the partnership's success, and thus free from antitrust regulations, and which ones might make the league too powerful.

But then came Jan. 21, the court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the majority ruled that there's no such thing as too much corporate power.

The court ruled that corporations have the same rights as citizens to spend whatever they want in influencing elections. So if corporations can control the future of the country, why not let them control the future of the NFL, which is slightly less important?

If you don't care who buys Congress and the presidency, why would you care who makes $25 souvenir caps and how much, say, Drew Brees gets paid to play football?

Drew Brees, of course, is the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, who will play the Indianapolis Colts in that crummy old stadium in Miami on Sunday in the NFL's annual celebration of itself. He also is a union activist, to the extent that someone who gets paid $10 million a year can be said to be a union activist. Writing in the Jan. 7 Washington Post, Brees warned: "What might the owners do? They could agree to end or severely restrict free agency, continue to enter into exclusive agreements that will further raise prices on merchandise, lock coaches into salary scales that don't reward them when they're promoted and set higher ticket prices. ..."

Legal nitpickers will argue that there's a distinction between First Amendment issues, as Citizens United, and antitrust law, as in American Needle. I say that we now have a Supreme Court majority that boldly stands with the rich and powerful. It's worth a lousy $750 million bet.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at khorrigan@post-dispatch.com.

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