Many sports fans know that Major League Baseball has a unique exemption from the nation’s antitrust laws, thanks to a 1922 Supreme Court decision, which perplexingly ruled that baseball teams do not engage in interstate commerce. Less well understood, however, is that the National Football League retains its own federal exemption through legislation that has allowed the league’s teams to cooperate on television contracts—a gift from Washington that has been crucial to the development of the modern NFL. Over the years, the exemption has proved controversial, though bipartisan calls to revoke or narrow it have never gained much traction. The exemption deserves a fresh look with the players’ extreme politicization of the league, in which they have been aided and abetted by the owners, who have allowed and even taken part in unprecedented partisan posturing—broadcast to the nation via Congress-approved TV deals.
According to NFL mythology, the league’s success is the result of the vision of its mid-1950s and 1960s leadership, including the marketing savvy of former commissioner Pete Rozelle. But the real cornerstone of the NFL’s rise was successful Washington lobbying by league leadership, after a court ruled in 1961 that NFL teams could not negotiate broadcasting rights as a group, because such power would violate antitrust laws against monopolization. Rozelle got a New York congressman, Emanuel Cellar, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly, to introduce what’s become known as the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which provided limited antitrust exemption, allowing teams to pool their efforts for the sake of negotiating TV deals. When President Kennedy signed the legislation, it permitted a $4.65 million broadcast deal that the NFL had crafted with CBS for the rights to televise football games. The price of broadcasting packages quickly accelerated, especially after the merger of the NFL and the old AFL, and the antitrust exemption allowed for such singular NFL successes as Monday Night Football, introduced in 1970.