Narcotic Effect of Antitrust Law in Professional Sports: How the Sherman Act Subverts Collective Bargaining

Using textual analysis and data from federal court opinions, I explore the relationship between collective bargaining and antitrust litigation in baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. My study draws from legal and industrial relations theories to explain how labor agreements in professional sports are settled by collective bargaining or antitrust litigation. First, when courts do not define the antitrust-labor law boundary so that labor disputes are exempt from their jurisdiction, they open an alternative path to bargaining these agreements. Second, when courts entertain antitrust lawsuits, they raise the odds that economic weapons under the NLRA will not be used because of judicial inclination to protect players from irreparable harm and injury resulting from league-imposed labor market restrictions. Third, as this behavior becomes a pattern, collective bargaining is disrupted by faulty information as players, unions, and leagues guesstimate the odds that their differences will be settled at a collective bargaining table or in a court supervised negotiation. Fourth, as players negotiate better agreements in court compared to the bargaining table, they become addicted to this settlement process. Applying the “narcotic effect” theory from industrial relations, I conclude that antitrust litigation addicts players in football and basketball to the adjudicatory procedures of the Sherman Act—thereby replacing collective bargaining. As long as courts entertain these sports lawsuits under the Sherman Act, collective bargaining will be subverted.