Senator floats reexamination of baseball’s antitrust exemption

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin says panel will be ‘preparing a hearing on that in the very near future’

Chairman Richard J. Durbin attends a Senate Judiciary markup last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Richard J. Durbin attends a Senate Judiciary markup last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2022 at 12:24pm

The Chicago Cubs fan who runs the Senate Judiciary Committee, irked by an ongoing lockout that has canceled games at the beginning of the upcoming season, suggested Thursday that the panel will examine Major League Baseball’s long-standing exemption to the nation’s antitrust laws.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin pointed out that it’s been 100 years since a Supreme Court ruling that first exempted professional baseball from the nation’s laws to prevent businesses from getting together to reduce economic competition.

“Over and over again, the Supreme Court has said it is up to the Congress to decide the role of Major League Baseball when it comes to antitrust exemptions,” Durbin said at a panel business meeting. “I happen to think at this moment in time we should be revisiting this issue.”

Durbin tweeted late Wednesday that the exemption allows MLB “to act as a lawful monopoly.” And on Thursday morning, 100 days into the owners' lockout of the players, he said the committee was “going to be preparing a hearing on that in the very near future.”

“My advice to Major League Baseball owners and players: Think of the fans. Do something for them. For goodness’ sakes,” Durbin said. “This lockout is an insult to a lot of loyal fans who spend an awful lot of hard-earned dollars following their teams. It’s time to play ball.”

The topic might put Durbin on the same team with some Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, such as Utah Republican Mike Lee, who introduced a bill on the topic last year.

“The chairman raises legitimate concerns; I do think we should revisit it, and I think we should overturn that case,” Lee told Durbin at the committee meeting. “I’ve got a bill that does that. I’d love to work with you on it.”

Lee’s bill, dubbed the Competition in Professional Baseball Act, has the backing of three other Republicans on the panel: Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. The House version has 33 co-sponsors, all Republicans, including some of the more strident conservatives.

Durbin, who as a House member expressed his passion for the sound of the wooden bat and other traditions of baseball in a legendary floor speech, welcomed Lee’s offer. “I think this might be bipartisan, as baseball is, so let’s look forward to that possibility,” Durbin said.

Simple bill, partisan politics

Lee’s legislation is straightforward and two pages long. “Professional baseball clubs shall not be exempt from antitrust laws,” it states, referring to laws to protect against monopolies and unfair methods of competition.

When Lee introduced the bill in April 2021, he told reporters that the exemption was “created from whole cloth” by the Supreme Court in 1922 in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, which “impermissibly stepped into the legislative thicket.”

Antitrust laws enhance competition, and competition benefits consumers because it brings down prices and increases quality, Lee said at a news conference. So any deviation from those laws needs to be enacted by Congress and not put in place by the Supreme Court.

“There’s no reason that Major League Baseball should be treated any differently than any other professional sports leagues in America,” Lee said at the time. “No reason why they ought to have preferential treatment relative to the NFL, or the NBA, or any other professional athletic organization.”

But motivations for supporting the bill play out against a backdrop of politics that include Major League Baseball’s decision in April 2021 to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta because of a Georgia law at the center of a simmering partisan debate over voting rights.

“Major League Baseball asks for your ID when you pick up tickets at will-call, but they have made it clear they oppose photo ID requirements to vote,” Cruz said in a release at the introduction of the bill. “If Major League Baseball is going to act dishonestly and spread lies about Georgia’s voting rights bill to favor one party against the other, they shouldn’t expect to continue to receive special benefits from Congress.”

The state law, known as SB 202, is among those that conservative states enacted in the wake of the 2020 election that swept President Donald Trump out of office as he spread unfounded allegations of election fraud.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit that contends Georgia lawmakers included provisions with the intent to make it more difficult for Black voters to cast ballots.