By Brian Tuohy
Like many other Pittsburgh Steelers fans, Daniel Spuck was unhappy with the controversial Week 17 San Diego Chargers win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The victory, achieved in part thanks to two questionable decisions by officials, propelled the Chargers into the playoffs while the Steelers missed the cut. Had the Chiefs beaten the Chargers, it would've been the Steelers meeting the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round, and who knows what might have happened.
While most of Steelers Nation chalked up the circumstances to tough luck, Spuck, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute at Mercer, Pa., decided to act. He filed suit against both the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell. Spuck sought a "temporary emergency injunction" delaying the start of the playoffs for seven to 10 days. In essence, due to allegedly "negligent and fraudulent" action by the NFL's officials, Spuck demanded either Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop get a second chance at the potential game-winning field goal he missed with :08 remaining in the fourth quarter, or that the Steelers and Chargers should match up in a game played at a neutral site to determine which team won the final AFC wild-card spot.
The motion was denied. Spuck's lawsuit was an extreme example and, to say the least, a long shot. But it did demonstrate a larger point: When it comes to any legal battles fans wish to fight against the sports they love, the law appears to be completely on the leagues' side.
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It was supposed to be a marquee Thursday night NBA on TNT match-up. The 13-3 San Antonio Spurs traveled to Miami to face the 10-3 Heat for a late November game in 2012. Though Miami demanded the 19,000+ fans in attendance pay a higher "premium ticket price" that night, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had a surprise in store. An hour before tip-off, Popovich informed the NBA that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Danny Green would not be suiting up. They had been sent back to San Antonio. Not due to injury, but simply to rest up after a long road trip.
When asked about this decision after the 105-100 loss, Popovich said of his missing stars, "If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I would want them to see everybody, and if they weren't there, I'd be disappointed." NBA commissioner David Stern was quick to comment as well, saying that Popovich "did a disservice to the league and our fans."
On behalf of all ticket buyers that night, Larry McGuinness sued the Spurs claiming that fans had "suffered economic damages" due to having to pay that premium ticket price to see a Spurs team devoid of its star players. This, according to McGuinness's suit, "was an unfair and deceptive practice which constitutes a violation of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act…which prohibits unconscionable, unfair, or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce."
Unfortunately, McGuinness voluntarily dismissed this suit prior to taking the Spurs to court. Perhaps it was because David Stern acted and fined the Spurs $250,000 for Popovich's decision. Or perhaps he learned what few rights ticket holders actually possess.
When owner Georgia Frontiere picked up her Los Angeles Rams and moved them east to St. Louis in 1995, Larry Charpentier sued, claiming the team had breached its contract with season ticket holders. In his suit, Charpentier, who originally filed suit under the name "Fight for the Rams," alleged that since 1946, the team had granted every season ticket holder the right to renew his tickets in the subsequent year -- even when the team moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim. However, when they transplanted to St. Louis, this right was denied despite the fact that the season ticket renewal form stated in part, "YOUR SEASON RESERVATION IS VALUABLE. You have the privilege to renew reserved seat locations for the upcoming season."
Charpentier stated he did not purchase his tickets "with the intent of watching a poor performing football team play for the 1994 season, only to have the team leave at the end of the year. Instead, [he] purchased [his seat] merely to 'reserve' the seat location of [his] season tickets in the future when [he] hoped that [the Rams] would provide a quality professional football team product."
Unfortunately, the court didn't see it that way and dismissed the case. In the court's opinion, several obvious -- and frankly, disturbing -- conclusions were reached. For one, "Just because a team has played for years in a particular location and has always done something a particular way does not mean that it must always do so." The court also wrote that Charpentier "did not buy the right to watch a good team or to have enlightened (in his opinion) management decisions made." And though the court admitted, "It is common knowledge that professional sports franchisees have a sordid history of arrogant disdain for the consumers of the product," the final ruling stated that Charpentier's recourse was limited to a personal decision to "give up on the team when he felt it had given up on him."
Despite this result, when Art Modell relocated the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore a year later, season ticket holders again attacked the offending franchise for trampling on their assumed rights.
Two different suits were brought. In the first, Stern v. Cleveland Browns Football Club, the fan posited that when the team made its mid-season relocation announcement, the quality of play faltered, which deprived him of "the entertainment, the aura, the enthusiasm of a Cleveland Browns Football team in 1995, and in the future." The court ruled that good or bad, the quality of the Browns' play wasn't an actionable offense. Specifically, "That the Browns performed poorly after the announced move to Baltimore cannot serve as a basis from which to find that the Browns breached their contract with season ticket holders. To allow recovery under such a theory would enable any ticket holder not satisfied with the performance of whatever entertainment the ticket procured to seek a refund for such a subjective and unreasonable response."
In the second, more money-minded suit, Beder v. Cleveland Browns, Inc., the plaintiff's claim was that post-announcement the Browns breached its contract with season ticket holders as the value of their tickets for the remainder of the season was significantly diminished. Here, the court even admitted, "This matter reflects that the announcement of the departure of the Browns was an historical moment of extraordinary public pathos to the city of Cleveland and its surrounding region. Indeed, one would be hard put to cite, eliminating outbreaks of war, parallel examples of the public anger that would exceed that expressed in the fall of 1995." That anger, however, had a price. The Browns eventually settled -- in 2001, five years after Modell's announcement -- rewarding each class-action member with $50.
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Similar fan conflict with ownership isn't merely an NFL issue. ABA season ticket holders once took on the New York Nets over the franchise's decision to trade away future hall-of-famer "Dr. J" Julius Erving. Their claim was based on the team enticing season ticket holders to re-up for the 1976-77 season by touting its star, three-time ABA MVP Dr. J, and that barring injury, they had a "reasonable expectation" he would play. Instead, to pay its expansion fee to join the NBA that season, the Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. The court held that "in this age of 'team-jumping ballplayers' and 'renegotiated' athletic contracts, the risk that Dr. J might not be playing for the Nets might 'fairly' be regarded as within the risks that (a purchaser) assumed under the contract." In other words: too bad.
The reason for most of these lopsided decisions stems from the legal obligations any team has to a ticket purchaser. What most people don't realize is that when they buy a ticket to a game, what they have actually purchased is a license granted to them by the team to see the specified contest -- and nothing more.
For example, in 1992 a fan sued the Chicago Cubs because the franchise would only allow him to purchase half the number of season tickets as had previously been allowed over the prior six seasons. The Cubs believed this customer was scalping his tickets and sought to stop such sales. The fan contended the previous sales awarded him an "option contract" for future sales. The court disagreed, writing, "There was no right to renew: Plaintiff had no option contract, no right of first refusal and no lease, only 'a revocable license.'"
Two other legal entanglements show what fans can -- and cannot -- expect when they purchase such a "license" to a sporting event.
No one predicted Mike Tyson would bite off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear during their June 28, 1997, rematch. But when the fight billed as "The Sound and the Fury" ended with Tyson's disqualification, angry fans filed suit, claiming "that they were entitled to view a 'legitimate heavyweight title fight' fought 'in accordance with the applicable rules and regulations' of the governing boxing commission." The problem for ticket holders that night was, as the court explained, boxing rules "provide for disqualification and it is a possibility that a fight fan can reasonably expect." As the court rejected the claim, it noted "that plaintiffs received what they paid for, namely, 'the right to view whatever event transpired.'"
Some might see this conclusion as reasonable. Others might consider this a monumental loophole to be exploited.
On June 19, 2005, Formula One fans didn't feel like they got what they paid for at the United States Grand Prix held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Due to faulty Michelin tires which the company warned may only last 10 laps unless drivers reduced their speed on a particular portion of the track, 14 cars completed the parade lap then immediately dropped out of the race. This left just six Bridgestone-clad drivers to compete. The debacle became known as Indygate.
Fans sued for their expenses on the basis that Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) required at least 12 cars to participate in a Formula One race. The Seventh Circuit Court rejected the fans' breach of contract claims for several reasons. For one, the case "arguably should fail because [the Indianapolis Motor Speedway] promised only to admit the plaintiffs to the race grounds on the days of the grand prix." But more importantly, the court made a similar finding as in the Tyson case, stating the fans' tickets were only a license to enter the race track and "view whatever event transpire[d]." Though the court agreed that the fans did possess a contractual right to witness a regulation Formula One race as well as a right "to have the race stewards properly interpret the applicable regulations on the spot," apparently Formula One rules allowed for a six car race. To add a bit of insult to injury, the court "noted that a sporting contest is not invalidated merely because of a player's poor effort." The fans received a "regulation race" for their ticket price, and unfortunately "[the fans] admit that they had no additional right to a race that was exciting or drivers that competed well." [emphasis in original]
While the Indygate lawsuit should've given fans fair warning about their rights, the Spygate lawsuit hammered the point home. Carl Mayer sued the New England Patriots, their head coach Bill Belichick, and the NFL seeking $61 million for the eight "fraudulent" Jets-Patriots games Jets' ticket holders witnessed during the Spygate era. Mayer, a Jets fan as well as a lawyer himself, and attorney Bruce Afran made a straightforward case: the Patriots, under Belichick's direction, knowingly violated NFL rules with their taping of opposing coaches' signals. In short, they cheated, and because of it, "This violated the contractual expectations and rights of New York Jets ticket-holders who fully anticipated and contracted for a ticket to observe an honest match played in compliance with all laws, regulations and NFL rules."
Unfortunately, these are unreal expectations.
The Patriots requested the case be dismissed. The NFL concurred. Remarkably, so did the Jets. And the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, while admitting, "Simply put, no one in the past has ever brought a legal action quite like this one," agreed with the NFL and its two franchises. The case was dismissed.
Why? As judge Robert Cowen wrote in his opinion for the case, "Mayer failed to set forth a legally cognizable right, interest, or injury here. At best, he possessed nothing more than a contractual right to a seat from which to watch an NFL game between the Jets and the Patriots, and this right was clearly honored." His ticket -- and every fan's ticket incidentally --"unambiguously stated that '[t]his ticket only grants entry into the stadium and a spectator seat for the specified NFL game.'…Here, Mayer undeniably saw football games played by two NFL teams. This therefore is not a case where, for example, the game or games were cancelled, strike replacement players were used, or the professional football teams themselves did something nonsensical or absurd, such as deciding to play basketball."[emphasis in original]
As for the fact that the Patriots broke the NFL's own rules, Judge Cowen had an opinion on that as well. "It appears uncontested that players often commit intentional rule infractions in order to obtain an advantage over the course of the game. For instance, a football player may purposefully commit pass interference or a 'delay of game.' Such infractions, if not called by the referees, may even change the outcome of the game itself. … Mayer further does not appear to contest the fact that a team is evidently permitted by the rules to engage in a wide variety of arguably 'dishonest' conduct to uncover an opponent's signals. For example, a team is apparently free to take advantage of the knowledge that a newly hired player or coach takes with him after leaving his former team, and it may even have personnel on the sidelines who try to pick up the opposing team's signals with the assistance of lip-reading, binoculars, note-taking, and other devices."
Cowen continued, "At least in this specific context, it is not the role of judges and juries to be second-guessing the decision taken by a professional sports league purportedly enforcing its own rules. In fact, we generally lack the knowledge, experience, and tools in which to engage in such an inquiry. For instance, there appear to be no real standards or criteria that a legal decision-maker may use to determine when a particular rule violation gives rise to an actionable claim or should instead be accepted as a usual and expected part of the game. At the very least, a ruling in favor of Mayer could lead to other disappointed fans filing lawsuits because of 'a blown call' that apparently caused their team to lose or any number of allegedly improper acts committed by teams, coaches, players, referees and umpires, and others. This Court refuses to countenance a course of action that would only further burden already limited judicial resources and force professional sports organizations and related individuals to expend money, time, and resources to defend against such litigation."
So what can fans do when they feel a franchise has trampled upon their rights?
Judge Cowen laid it out in no uncertain terms. "We further recognize that professional football, like other professional sports, is a multi-billion dollar business. In turn, ticket-holders and other fans may have legitimate issues with the manner in which they are treated….Significantly, our ruling also does not leave Mayer and other ticket-holders without any recourse. Instead, fans could speak out against the Patriots, their coach, and the NFL itself. In fact, they could even go so far as to refuse to purchase tickets or NFL-related merchandise….However, the one thing they cannot do is bring a legal action in a court of law."[emphasis in original]
After the decision was announced, Afran said the court's opinion "seems to suggest that no matter how much ticket holders pay, they can be defrauded by NFL teams, and it puts the NFL on the same level as professional wrestling."
Even the NFL didn't disagree. Shepard Goldfein, one of the NFL's lawyers in this case, argued that "fans likely would buy tickets even if they knew the Patriots were stealing signals."
Daniel Spuck and other like-minded litigious fans might disagree. But there's not much they can do beyond that.
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.