Over the course of the last couple weeks, I've grown increasingly interested in writing about the intersection of law and sports. Several things have contributed to this.
First, Ryan Lochte. For those that have been out of the loop for the past few days, the four-time U.S. Olympian swimmer allegedly fabricated an armed robbery story while in Rio. He twice went on national TV and made himself out to be the victim. Well, as more information surfaces, it appears as though not only was Lochte not a victim, but he may have inflicted the damage himself... by peeing behind a gas station. You really can't make this stuff up.
Second, More Perfect. Stemming from the popular podcast Radiolab, More Perfect is a spin-off audio series on the Supreme Court. Week after week, I've thoroughly enjoyed taking a look inside arguably the most influential group in the United States. It's not baseball or sports related, but give it a listen if you haven't already.
Finally, earlier this summer Tom Brady broke his silence and decided not to pursue any further legal action related to Deflategate. I won't spill any more ink on this story.
With sports law on my mind, I set out to find the most interesting legal cases in baseball history. This is my no means an exhaustive list, but here are three that I found compelling.
Supreme Court upholds MLB antitrust exemption
In 1903, the National League and American League joined forces to form Major League Baseball. Roughly a decade later, a start up group named the Federal League sought to establish itself as another professional baseball entity. After losing out on player after player to the superior MLB, the owners of the Federal League sued MLB for monopolizing the market on baseball players, claiming a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Although most Federal League owners agreed to a settlement in 1915, owners of the Baltimore Terrapins rejected the settlement and took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. In what has since proven to be a questionable decision, our nation's highest court ruled in 1922 that baseball was not the type of commerce that federal law was intended to regulate. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reasoned that "personal effort, not related to production, is not a subject of commerce," thus giving baseball an antitrust exemption. MLB was allowed to continue its monopoly and is the only professional sport to enjoy this exemption.
Further reading: Slate: Why does baseball have an antitrust exemption?
Flood v. Kuhn
In the late 1960s, the St. Louis Cardinals traded outfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood was 31 at the time of the trade and was a good player (seven gold gloves, three all star appearances, a career slash line of .293/.342/.389). He bristled at the trade and the idea that he had no say in where he would finish his career, so much so that he sued the MLB commissioner and owners for antitrust violations. His case, more or less, was that a worker of his stature in other industries would be granted some level of autonomy in choosing where and for whom he worked. The Supreme Court heard the case and denied Flood's attempt to become a free agent by a 5-3 vote, upholding the antitrust exemption that was established in 1922 (the majority opinion written by Harry Blackmun includes references to Casey at the Bat and begins with a lengthy history of baseball). However, as a result of the conversation Flood started in 1969, salary arbitration was instituted in 1973 and free agency in 1975.
Supreme Court & Fantasy Baseball
In the 2000s, the popularity of fantasy baseball soared with an estimated annual revenue of $1.5 billion. At the same time, MLB created its own internet arm called Major League Baseball Advanced Media. In 2005, these two came to a head when a St. Louis-based fantasy baseball company (CBC Distribution and Marketing) sued MLB for refusing to give it access to player and team data. According to the New York Times, CBC "argued that the identity and performance of major league ballplayers was in the public domain and could not be cordoned off without violating the First Amendment" while Major League Baseball "argued that in balancing the right of publicity against the First Amendment, the appeals court had given too much weight to the First Amendment." In June of 2008, the Supreme Court denied MLB's appeal of a lower court's ruling that allowed fantasy baseball companies to access player data without a license from MLB.
Further reading: NYT: No Ruling Means No Change for Fantasy Baseball Leagues