The Yale Law Journal

January 2010

American Needle v. NFL: An Opportunity To Reshape Sports Law

Michael A. McCann

119 Yale L.J. 726 (2010). 

In American Needle v. National Football League, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether, and to what extent, section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act regulates a professional sports league and its independently owned franchises. For the first time, the Court could characterize a league and its teams as a single entity, meaning that the league and its teams are not able to “conspire” because they share one “corporate consciousness,” and thus cannot violate section 1 through even the most anticompetitive behaviors. Such an outcome would run counter to the sports league-related decisions of most U.S. Courts of Appeals, which have generally rejected the single entity defense because teams often do not pursue common interests. It would, however, prove consistent with the views of the Seventh Circuit, which in 2008 determined in American Needle that the National Football League and its teams constitute a single entity for purposes of apparel sales.

This Feature provides a substantive analysis of American Needle, the relationship between antitrust law and professional sports, and the merits and weaknesses of the single entity defense for professional sports leagues and their teams. The Feature also projects how American Needle may influence the legal strategies and business operations of other sports associations.

The Feature discourages the Court from recognizing the NFL and similar leagues as single entities, and recommends that Congress consider targeted, sports-related exemptions from section 1.