Brown v. Pro Football, Inc. (95-388), 518 U.S. 231 (1996)
[ Breyer ]
[ Stevens ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

No. 95-388. Argued March 27, 1996 -- Decided June 20, 1996

After their collective bargaining agreement expired, the National Football League (NFL), a group of football clubs, and the NFL Players Association, a labor union, began to negotiate a new contract. The NFL presented a plan that would permit each club to establish a "developmental squad" of substitute players, each of whom would be paid the same $1,000 weekly salary. The union disagreed, insisting that individual squad members should be free to negotiate their own salaries. When negotiations reached an impasse, the NFL unilaterally implemented the plan. A number of squad players brought this antitrust suit, claiming that the employers' agreement to pay them $1,000 per week restrained trade in violation of the Sherman Act. The District Court entered judgment for the players on a jury treble damages award, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the owners were immune from antitrust liability under the federal labor laws.

Held: Federal labor laws shield from antitrust attack an agreement among several employers bargaining together to implement after impasse the terms of their last best good faith wage offer. Pp. 3-18.

(a) This Court has previously found in the labor laws an implicit, "nonstatutory" antitrust exemption that applies where needed to make the collective bargaining process work. See, e.g., Connell Constr. Co. v. Plumbers, 421 U.S. 616, 622. The practice here at issue--the postimpasse imposition of a proposed employment term concerning a mandatory subject of bargaining--is unobjectionable as a matter of labor law and policy, and, indeed, plays a significant role in the multiemployer collective bargaining process that itself comprises an important part of the Nation's industrial relations system. Subjecting it to antitrust law would threaten to introduce instability and uncertainty into the collective bargaining process, for antitrust often forbids or discourages the kinds of joint discussions and behavior that collective bargaining invites or requires. Moreover, if antitrust courts tried to evaluate particular kinds of employer understandings, there would be created a web of detailed rules spun by many different nonexpert antitrust judges and juries, not a set of labor rules enforced by a single expert body, the National Labor Relations Board, to which the labor laws give primary responsibility for policing collective bargaining. Thus, the implicit exemption applies in this case. Pp. 3-10.

(b) Petitioners' claim that the exemption applies only to labor management agreements is rejected, since it is based on inapposite authority, and an exemption limited by petitioners' labor management consent principle could not work. Pp. 10-12.

(c) Also rejected is the Solicitor General's argument that the exemption should terminate at the point of impasse. His rationale, that employers are thereafter free as a matter of labor law to negotiate individual arrangements on an interim basis with the union, is not completely accurate. More importantly, the simple "impasse" line would not solve the basic problem that labor law permits employers, after impasse, to engage in considerable joint behavior, while uniform employer conduct--at least when accompanied by discussion--invites antitrust attack. Pp. 12-15.

(d) Petitioners' alternative rule, which would exempt from antitrust's reach postimpasse agreements about bargaining "tactics," but not those about substantive "terms," is unsatisfactory because it would require antitrust courts, insulated from the bargaining process, to delve into the amorphous subject of employers' subjective motives in order to determine whether the exemption applied. Pp. 15-16.

(e) Petitioners' arguments relating to general "backdrop" statutes and the "special" nature of professional sports are also rejected. Pp. 16-18.

(f) The antitrust exemption applies to the employer conduct at issue here, which took place during and immediately after a collective bargaining negotiation; grew out of, and was a directly related to, the lawful operation of the bargaining process; involved a matter that the parties were required to negotiate collectively; and concerned only the parties to the collective bargaining relationship. The Court's holding is not intended to insulate from antitrust review every joint imposition of terms by employers, for an employer agreement could be sufficiently distant in time and in circumstances from the bargaining process that a rule permitting antitrust intervention would not significantly interfere with that process. The Court need not decide in this case whether, or where, to draw the line, particularly since it does not have the detailed views of the Board on the matter. Pp. 18-19.

50 F. 3d 1041, affirmed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion.