“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.”
— Judge Robert Cowan
3rd Circuit Court of Appeals
“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.”
— Beder v. Cleveland Browns
Sunday’s league championship games in the NFL should have been a shining moment for the league. Both games were competitive. Each game went to overtime. Each game featured a legendary, future Hall of Fame quarterback against a young upstart. It was a scenario the league could only dream of.
Unfortunately, each game also featured a critical penalty or non-penalty in the final moments of the game. In the Chiefs-Patriots game, the call was clearly warranted, but Chief’s coach Andy Reid still complained after the game that the player was entitled to a warning that he never received. Had the offside penalty not been called, the Chiefs would have intercepted Tom Brady and likely run out the clock.
In the Rams-Saints game, a double non-call occurred on a suspect pass interference and a shot to the head of a defenseless receiver. Had either penalty been called, the Saints would certainly have run out the little time remaining and gone on to the Super Bowl. Both the Saints and the Chiefs lost in overtime.
Saints fan reacted as Americans are wont to do — they sued the NFL. At least two different suits were filed with one, brought by lawyer Frank D’Amico Jr., seeking to force the NFL to utilize a league rule allowing the commissioner to correct a “calamity” by replaying the game from the point at which the calamity occurred. Fans suing a sports league over a result they don’t like is nothing new. And past history teaches us that there is one constant in all of these lawsuits — the fans lose. Every time.
Just five years ago, a fan sued the NFL after what he perceived to be a bad call allowed the San Diego Chargers to beat the Kansas City Chiefs and advance to the playoffs instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The plaintiff, Daniel Spuck, was a convicted murderer who filed his case from prison. And he didn’t seek monetary damages, he wanted the court to stop the playoffs from starting until the Chiefs could get a do-over. He lost. Quickly.
When the Cleveland Browns fled to Baltimore in 1995, and again when the Rams moved, fans of each team sued the NFL asking for damages. In the case of the Browns, the suits asked for money to be refunded because the team played badly after the future move was announced. That claim failed, but another claim over future ticket deposits did eventually result in an out of court settlement that returned a small amount to each season ticket holder.
Fans sued over the Tyson-Holyfield fight. They lost. They sued over NBA teams resting their star players. They lost. They sued over a U.S. Grand Prix marred by tire problems. Over the Patriots “Spygate.” Over the Cubs controlling season ticket sales. Lost. Lost. Lost.
So why do fans always lose? First, they usually don’t have much of a claim to begin with — they’re simply upset about the outcome of the game. That’s because fans don’t have any ownership or interest in the team or sport, they are simply buying a ticket to see a certain event played out. And as long as that contest is played, in some reasonable form, then the league and the teams have made good on their ticket.
In the Spygate case, brought by a fan named Carl Mayer, federal Judge Robert Cowan stated the position of the fan clearly and succinctly, “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.” Judge Cowan pointed out that NFL tickets state right on them, “This ticket only grants entry into the stadium and a spectator seat for the specified NFL game.”
Mayer lost his suit, and we can say with near certainty that the Saints fans will as well, because as much as they might be upset about the outcome, they paid to see a game, and they saw a game. In fact, the legal position of the fans in the Spygate case was so bad, even the NY Jets, who were the victims of the Patriots spying, asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
We’ll see a Patriots-Rams Super Bowl in two weeks, and we’ll talk for years about the call that never was, and the offsides that cost the Chiefs dearly.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, and a Buffalo Bills fan, which means he knows more about Super Bowl heartache than most.