While few people know of it today, Radovich v. NFL is one of the most important legal cases in all of American sport.
This Supreme Court case decided that all sports except Major League Baseball are subject to antitrust laws.
This article explains the background to the case and what happened…in plain English.
Bill Radovich At The Detroit Lions
Bill Radovich was a Serbian-American football player and actor in the early to mid part of the 20th century. He starred on the field at the University of Southern California, while doing bit parts in movies in his spare time.
When Radovich was completing his college years, he set his sights on the NFL.
Bill went undrafted in the 1937 NFL draft. However, he embarked on a campaign to get the attention of several teams. This worked and he signed with the Detroit Lions.
In a contrast with the NFL today, the main attraction of the Lions was that they would also provide off-season work for their players!
He played offensive guard and defensive linebacker in the era of single-platoon football. (Single-platoon means that everyone had to play both offense and defense).
In his first season, he was named All-Pro and played in the first-ever All-Star Game. One of his teammates in this game was future Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White.
Bill played with the Lions until 1941 when he entered the Navy for World War II.
After the war, he returned to the Lions and was named All-Pro for the 1946 season.
Radovich Asks To Be Traded
In 1946, Bill received word that his father, who lived in Southern California, had fallen ill. Bill wanted to be able to spend more time with his ailing father.
Right at this time, Bill received an offer from the Los Angeles Dons. This was a team in a new league that had gone into competition with the NFL.
Of course, a new league would be a threat to the NFL for audience and players. The Dons offered Bill twice what the Lions were paying him. It was perfect for what he wanted.
So, Bill went to the owner of the Lions, Fred Madel, Jr. He asked Madel for one of two options:
- a trade to the Los Angeles Rams, or
- more money so that he could afford to visit his father more often.
NFL’s Reserve Clause
It’s important to know that Bill’s contract had actually expired at the time. But this didn’t mean that he could leave the Lions and join another club just because he wanted to.
Instead, he had to request the owner to trade him.
This was due to the “reserve clause” in the NFL in those days. The reserve clause meant that the Lions had the right to Bill as a player, even after his contract expired.
This right lasted for a player’s NFL career. The only way Bill could go somewhere else was if the Lions agreed to trade him.
When Bill asked Fred Madel, Jr., to trade him to the Rams or match the Dons offer, Madel’s reply was stark:
You’ll play in Detroit or you won’t play anywhere. And, if you try to play in that new league, I’ll have you blacklisted for five years.Fred Madel Jr (Account by a niece of Radovich)
Bill wasn’t a man to heed threats. He signed with the Dons and played there for two seasons. Unfortunately for Bill, the Dons then merged with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. This new team was now back in the NFL!
Bill wasn’t eligible to stay with the team because the NFL wouldn’t hire back any players who defected to the new league.
The blacklist extends further
Bill was at the age now to retire from playing, so he looked around for opportunities off the field. He accepted an offer to coach a minor league team.
However, they had to let him go when the NFL Commissioner got wind of his new job. The Commissioner told the team they couldn’t hire him without facing reprisals from the NFL.
Bill had to move to Canada to coach in the Canadian football League. But this meant he was away from his loved ones.
He returned to California to be near his family at the end of one season.
A Fateful Encounter
At this point, Bill was back in southern California and out of football. The man needed to feed his family and he was resourceful.
He turned to acting as a career while working as a floor manager in a local restaurant to supplement his income between roles.
One evening when working at the restaurant, a football fan recognized him. This fan was also an antitrust attorney. It was a young Joseph Alioto who would go on to have a colorful career of his own in later years.
But here, he was a fan wondering why an outstanding football player was working in a restaurant.
Bill told Alioto his entire story. He explained that he was on a list of players that the NFL had of people who were not to be hired by any team in any capacity.
Alioto had heard of the blacklist, but had not encountered it “up close and personal”. That night, the young attorney drew up a plan for a lawsuit on a cocktail napkin, right on the spot.
The Lower Courts
In 1949, Radovich and Alioto filed suit in Federal court alleging that the NFL was engaging in anticompetitive practices in order to make it impossible for a new league to compete.
The antitrust laws apply to interstate commerce…in other words, commercial operations that occurred in at least two different states.
The case of Radovich stated that the NFL was in interstate commerce because it played games in different states and broadcast across state lines.
Further, they stated that Bill had been damaged by being unable to obtain work in football due to the NFL’s blacklist.
Doesn’t it seem obvious that the NFL was (and is) engaged in interstate commerce? Well, it wasn’t so clear back then.
The Problem Of Baseball
Radovich and his lawyers were facing one big hurdle.
In a previous case, the Supreme Court had ruled that Major League Baseball was exempt from antitrust laws. This was on the basis that the MLB was not engaged in interstate commerce.
We have a full article that clearly explains how Baseball’s antitrust exemption came about.
We’ll just say here that the NFL pointed at this prior judgment and said that their league was just the same.
Their lawyers argued that the NFL wasn’t engaged in interstate commerce either, so couldn’t be subject to antitrust laws.
But the NFL lawyers didn’t stop there.
Lower Courts Decide In Favor Of The NFL
The NFL went on to say that they had not prevented Bill from getting football employment. After all, he had actually worked for the Dons – for a higher salary – after he left the NFL.
This sidesteps the fact that his employment was terminated when the Dons joined the NFL!
The reserve clause seems indefensible now in terms of labor laws.
But the NFL stated that clause was not in place to crush new leagues. They claimed it was simply to maintain competitive balance within their own league.
Both the District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the NFL and dismissed the case.
The 9th Circuit went as far as saying that the NFL couldn’t be engaged in commerce because games aren’t commerce!
What Happened In The Supreme Court?
The case was finally heard by the Supreme Court in 1957.
Federal Government rides into town
In a surprising development, the Federal Government inserted itself into the lawsuit on behalf of the Plaintiffs.
The United States Solicitor General actually drafted and filed briefs supporting their position. He even showed up to argue the case with them.
NFL overplays its hand
Both sides essentially reiterated the arguments they had made in the lower courts.
However, one of the attorneys for the NFL made a serious error when he referred to Bill Radovich as a “washed up marginal player”.
Chief Justice Earl Warren just so happened to be a football fan.
The Chief Justice interrupted the argument and stated that he had seen Mr. Radovich play in person.
He opined that Radovich was well above average. He further warned the NFL attorneys that he didn’t want to hear any more of that kind of nonsense!
The Supreme Court found for Radovich.
In its decision, it stated that the NFL was clearly engaged in interstate commerce and engaged in anticompetitive activity.
The Court acknowledged that this wasn’t consistent with the case law that exempted baseball from antitrust law.
However, the Court further said that if the baseball case had come before them in the present time, it would have been decided differently.
As I mentioned in our article on baseball and antitrust, the MLB got lucky due to timing. The Court baldly said that if the case had happened now (in 1957), baseball would have no exemption either.
After deciding that the NFL was subject to antitrust law, the Supreme Court directed the case back to the District Court for trial.
The NFL promptly settled with Radovich for $45,000.00. The equivalent now would be about ten times that amount.
Bill Radovich enjoyed his victory. He insisted the NFL commissioner Bert Bell sign the check personally!
Effects Of Radovich v. NFL
The effects of Radovich are far-reaching and extend beyond football. It’s cited in virtually any sports antitrust litigation in American courts to this day.
After the case was over, the NFL lobbied Congress for an antitrust exemption, but mostly failed.
Bill Radovich often said that he was the first person to take on a major league in court and win, and it’s hard to argue with him.
Virtually every other league (apart from baseball) has been sued for antitrust violations in cases relying on the decision in Radovich.
The NFL has also been sued by players in labor cases, and by other individuals and organizations claiming to be injured by its antitrust violations.
After Bill Radovich started his lawsuit, the NFL began its long, slow march to its current free agency system. While it’s not possible to show a direct correlation, there is no question his victory influenced the process.
In 2016, when the NFL Players Association announced its “60 Heroes of the NFLPA”, the first name mentioned was Bill Radovich.