- The Big Leagues Go to Washington: Congress and Sports Antitrust, 1951–1989 by David George Surdam
Protecting the “public interest” has many meanings depending on the political and economic situation at a given historical moment. The phrase “public interest” is beloved by politicians of all persuasions for its very lack of coherent meaning. It is a catchall for whatever a group of politicians choose to investigate with a definition always open to alteration and reinvention.
How the U.S. Congress defined the public interest in terms of professional sports is the subject of Surdam’s well-researched The Big Leagues Go to Washington. In one concise volume, Surdam does a good job of explaining the issues, the personalities, and the impact Congressional hearings had and continue to have on the structure of the “big time” U.S. professional sports leagues (the NFL, MLB, NBA). Hearings and, in much more limited instances, legislation resulting from the hearings on such topics as league mergers, territorial rights, player rights and free agency, team relocations, league expansion, and television rights (mainly broadcast television due to the time frame covered) were all subjects of multiple Congressional hearings, as the members of the U.S. House and Senate attempted to “protect” consumers and the public over the nearly forty-year period covered here. Not surprisingly, the definition of protecting the public has often been one of protecting the owners of franchises in professional sports leagues. The rise of the present legally sanctioned cartels in professional football, baseball, and basketball are all given thorough coverage.
A key framework employed by Surdam is that sports leagues operate with a mixture of cooperation and competition. This dual nature is used often to point out the contradictory nature of the testimony of various professional sports officials in their Congressional dealings. This is well illustrated in Chapter 15 (“Can’t We All Get Along?”), which covers the hearings that led to an antitrust exemption that allowed the NFL to fully merge with the rival American Football League. Detailed examples are given of the extraordinary public relations skills of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was able to claim that the NFL was a “single entity or a joint venture, whichever was advantageous at the time.” Rozelle’s skill or genius has been recounted and analyzed many times, but Surdam, by use of well-chosen quotations and his own accessible writing style, provides a good explanation of how Rozelle was so much better as a lobbyist and representative of his employer’s desires than [End Page 142] his baseball or basketball counterparts. This same chapter, by the way, also recounts how an influential member of Congress can define the public interest as whatever helps his/her constituents and, by extension, her-/himself by explaining the overt way then House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) forced the NFL to grant an expansion franchise to New Orleans in exchange for Boggs’s supporting the merger or even allowing a House vote on the necessary antitrust exemption. This is another well-known or perhaps even well-worn story that comes alive again for the reader and may be a revelation to younger sports law scholars.
While Surdam is a very good writer and synthesizer of often difficult material, the book could have been improved with a better attention to flow. Choosing to write in topical rather than chronological order makes intuitive sense but has a major downside—the sometimes jarring leap from one historical period to another as one begins a new chapter. I have to assume that Surdam ends his account in 1989 because he plans to author another volume covering Congressional hearings on sports since 1990. I hope he does, but rather wish he had published his entire analysis as one larger single work or as a two-book set.
The changes since then have been so enormous, particularly in the television business, that the story of and impact of what went on before seems rather adrift...