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Edited by Jack McCallum and Richard O'Brien
March 31, 1997
Excising Baseball's Exemption
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March 31, 1997


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Excising Baseball's Exemption

At a meeting next week in Washington, baseball's owners and players will work together to write legislation that would eliminate significant portions of the sport's oft-derided antitrust exemption. If they can cobble together a bill—and both owners' lobbyist Bill Cable and Gene Orza, deputy chief of the players' union, said last week that they expect to—here's what it will mean: Major leaguers will have the same antitrust rights enjoyed by other pro athletes, rights that have allowed NBA and NFL players to pursue free agency and other benefits through triple-damage antitrust lawsuits against their leagues.

Lifting the antitrust exemption, a legal aberration that should have been revoked decades ago to bring baseball in line with other U.S. businesses, will give players more leverage to get owners to negotiate in good faith and perhaps forestall a long stalemate like the one that shut down the major leagues from August 1994 to April '95. For example, if bargaining fails to produce an agreement when the current deal expires in 2000 (or 2001, if the players pick up their one-year option), owners will know that they could soon find themselves served with an antitrust suit, a prospect that should act as a strong incentive to bargain.

According to Cable and Orza, under the law they are drafting, the antitrust exemption will remain in effect for team relocations, broadcasting contracts and the protection of minor league markets. Those are all things, by and large, that don't disrupt the season.

If owners and players agree on a bill, it will be delivered to Orrin Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has already introduced similar legislation (called the Curt Flood Act of 1997). Unless Hatch has serious reservations about the player-owner bill, he is expected to substitute it for his own, and it should sail through Congress.

Is it possible? Owners and players, conservatives and liberals, actually agreeing on something? That seems to be the case. It's only a shame that Flood, whose battle to gain free agency resulted in the last of three Supreme Court decisions upholding the antitrust exemption, isn't around to hear the news.