Is the PGA Handicapping Competition?
AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File
Is the PGA Handicapping Competition?
AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File
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The antitrust world is transfixed by the government’s high-profile cases against tech giants like Google and Facebook, but another antitrust drama is bubbling in an unlikely place: professional golf. The Commissioner of the PGA Tour recently threatened the world’s greatest golfers with a lifetime ban if they played in a fledgling league that Hall of Fame golfer Greg Norman is creating. 

The PGA Tour is a non-profit whose charter requires it to act in the common interests of professional tournament golfers. Those golfers are independent contractors, not employees, so they are supposed to have the flexibility and freedom to choose where to play and who pays them.

The Tour’s allies have echoed the threats. The CEO of the PGA of America, for example, recently threatened to ban any golfers from the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship if they played with a competitor to the PGA Tour.

These threats raise echoes of past bad behavior by the NFL and NHL. Litigation put a decisive end to their attempts to punish players who tried to compete elsewhere. Now that the PGA Tour is resurrecting these sharp tactics, let’s assess how the antitrust laws treat these practices.

Antitrust laws are meant to preserve free and unfettered competition. If a professional golfer defeats his competitors by working hard, practicing more, or simply being a more gifted player, that is the essence of fair competition. On the other hand, if a golfer tells a competitor that if he sinks his next putt, it will be the last time he ever swings a club, that is unfair competition. That kind of threat would diminish competitive rivalry among golfers and reduce the quality of golf enjoyed by golf fans.  

The threat over the putt is precisely what the PGA Tour is applying to players considering playing in any new golf leagues, especially the rumored new league Norman is linked with. The Tour is trying to maintain its monopoly by telling players it will destroy their livelihoods, ban them from tournaments, and restrict their media rights. That’s not competition on the merits. As golfer Jordan Spieth rightly observed recently, “it’s been beneficial to the players to have competition.”

In this regard, one wonders when the PGA Tour’s limits on players’ freedom will catch the attention of the Biden Administration’s antitrust enforcers. One of the central objectives of President Biden’s July 2021Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy was to make it easier for workers to change jobs and achieve their true market value by eliminating restrictions on mobility. 

The President likely did not have professional golfers in mind, but their situation as independent contractors present an enticing test case for the Administration.  And if the Federal Trade Commission looks deeper, the PGA Tour could learn that the antitrust laws have real teeth. Private parties and government enforcers can seek injunctive relief, and injured private parties automatically recover triple damages and attorneys’ fees—the same set of remedies that forced other professional sports leagues to drop similar tactics generations ago. 

If Norman’s rumored new league – or any other competitive structure — is able to launch, fans and players will benefit. The American Football League’s entry in the 1960s—just a few years after antitrust litigation forced the NFL to stop the player threats that had forestalled earlier competitors—spurred a generation of innovation that led to the modernization of football for the benefit of players and fans alike. Golf desperately needs the same revival, and competition can provide it. 

Alden Abbott is the former general counsel of the Federal Trade Commission. 

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