"WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday turned away the National Football League's request for broad antitrust law protection, ruling that the league can be considered 32 separate teams -- not one big business -- when it comes to selling branded items like jerseys and caps.
The high court unanimously reversed a lower court ruling throwing out an antitrust suit brought against the league by one of its former hat makers, who was upset that it lost its contract for making official NFL hats to Reebok.
American Needle, Inc. sued, claiming the league violated antitrust law because all 32 teams worked together to freeze it out of the NFL-licensed hatmaking business. The company lost and appealed to the Supreme Court but the NFL did as well, hoping to get broader protection from antitrust lawsuits.
Major League Baseball is the only professional sports league with broad antitrust protection. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the NCAA, NASCAR, professional tennis and Major League Soccer supported the NFL in this case, hoping the high court would expand broad antitrust exemption to other sports.
The Supreme Court turned away the league's theory that its 32 teams operate as one business, and sent American Needle's antitrust lawsuit back to the lower court.
"Decisions by NFL teams to license their separately owned trademarks collectively and to only one vendor are decisions that 'deprive the marketplace of independent centers of decisionmaking ... and therefore of actual or potential competition," said the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court."