OAKLAND — Hours before the Golden State Warriors closed out the NBA Finals, civic pride was in the air as a few dozen people gathered at the steps of Oakland City Hall.
But this wasn’t a joyous meeting — it was about the Oakland Raiders leaving for Las Vegas.
Local fan groups had retained the two foremost antitrust attorneys in America — Jim Quinn and Eric Hochstadt — as they pursued a “sophisticated approach” to keep the team, as We Stand With Oakland spokesperson Raymond Bobbitt phrased it.
Quinn’s considerable legacy has been built on playing the adversary to the NFL. The attorney responsible for free agency in the sport, Quinn said he’s had a lot of fun going against the “rough and tumble” billionaire owners of a league that sometimes operates as a cartel, according to decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.
As the attorneys and a group of fans assembled in front of cameras and waited for straggling members of the media, it was clear the point of this news conference was to send a message. But what was it and whom was it for?
“We’re sending a message to the people of Oakland that there are groups here that care deeply about NFL football and the Raiders,” Quinn later explained in a meeting with the San Francisco Examiner in a back room of city hall. “The message, too, is directed at the league and the current ownership of the Raiders that perhaps they ought to rethink what they’ve done.
“Let’s see whether or not going forward there’s a way to make everybody happy,” said the man who built his reputation arguing cases in court.
“That’s what I like to do: Make everybody happy.”
When reminded that hasn’t always been the case in his dealings with the NFL, Quinn doesn’t object: “Sometimes, they have not been happy,” he said.
An adversarial history
In 1990, former New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil sued the NFL because he wasn’t allowed true free agency under the league’s rules.
Then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s team of attorneys and Jim Quinn, representing McNeil and seven other plaintiffs, failed to reach a settlement before the case was heard in U.S. District Court in 1992.
After opening statements, Tagliabue couldn’t contain his confidence that the league would prevail.
“Quinn convinced me that we are going to win,” he said, according to a report in the New York Times. “Whatever reason we had to settle is gone by the boards, because it’s clear that we’re going to win this case.”
Quinn and McNeil would go on to win that case, effectively doing away with Plan B free agency, as it was called.
Before the decision, a team could designate up to 36 players on its roster, who would require opponents to provide compensation if they wanted to sign someone away from the original franchise.
Thirty-six players is a significant portion of a roster that can carry as many as 53 people. Player movement was effectively stifled by this system because teams could raise the price on their own assets, making them unaffordable for others.
The McNeil decision did away with that, because the court found the structure was too harmful for players.
As a result, the NFL had to pay nearly $200 million in damages, in addition to all of Quinn’s legal fees, which boiled down to about $10 million.
“Paul Tagliabue lived to eat those words,” said Quinn.
Quinn’s dealings with the league didn’t end there.
After he won the McNeil case, there was “almost a decade and a half of peace.” But once Tagliabue stepped down, the league’s owners “decided the players were making too much money” and held a lockout in 2011.
Again, the NFL was sued under antitrust laws.
“That was a very difficult, bitter negotiation,” Quinn recalled. “And I came out of it with a very bad taste in my mouth as a result of some of the things the NFL owners did.”
His primary grievance: A suspected secret salary cap created by the owners during a year that was supposed to have no such thing.
Quinn wouldn’t find out about this until the statute of limitations had run out.
“It was probably the single most outrageous thing I’ve seen a group of owners do, and I’ve seen a lot of bad things,” he said.
“This was actual, real collusion. In a different era, and if the Justice Department had jurisdiction, they could’ve gone to jail for what they did.”
Griz Jones closely followed the Raiders as they went through the motions of leaving Oakland.
He was in Houston in January 2016 when the owners voted to move the Rams and Chargers — but not the Raiders — to Los Angeles. He was in Dallas for the Winter Meeting when the league’s power players deemed the most complete proposal to keep the team in Oakland insufficient. And he was in Arizona when a relocation to Las Vegas was approved in March.
Jones has had meetings with local officials, NFL brass and owner Mark Davis himself. He said he’s maintained a consistent message: Don’t move my team.
And there’s no uncertainty in his voice when he shares the findings of his “investigation” that began as soon as Davis started hinting his desire to move the Silver and Black.
“There was a crime that took place on March 27,” he said.
Jones’ organization, Forever Oakland, teamed up with Save Oakland Sports and Stay in Oakland to continue the investigation. We Stand With Oakland, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed the day the move was approved.
The coalition of fan groups is paying Quinn and Hochstadt through the nonprofit entity. According to Bobbitt, We Stand With Oakland agreed to an “exploratory retainer” with the attorneys. So while the lawyers weigh their options, the fans are scrambling to raise as much money as possible, should the day come when they’re required to keep their star counsel working through a case.
“Once we increase the retainer, we will as a coalition start raising money to do what we can, but ultimately we hope the municipalities come on board bringing the action and to help fund it,” Bobbitt said in a phone interview.
There’s a GoFundMe page collecting donations in the interim while the fans try to sway the local governments to provide more funding.
City Councilmember Noel Gallo and Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley were in attendance at the Monday news conference and offered their support for the group’s actions. But there is currently no deal in place.
Several messages left with Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office for comment went unanswered.
“The public agencies didn’t come to us, we went to them,” Bobbitt said. “We went to them and said, ‘We’d like to get your support and these are the people who are most qualified to move the needle and really get some action out of this process. We’re not here to demand that you do anything without the public’s support.’
“We’re optimistic right now.”
The case against relocation
Did the NFL follow its own relocation rules when it approved the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas? Quinn and Hochstadt have their doubts.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also isn’t so sure the league stayed true to its policy of keeping teams put unless there was no alternative.
“My position today was that we as owners and as a League owe it to the fans to do everything we can to stay in the communities that have supported us until all options have been exhausted,” Ross, the lone dissenter in a 31-1 vote, said in a statement in March.
There is a stated procedure that says, “League traditions disfavor relocations if a club has been well-supported and financially successful and is expected to remain so,” yet three franchises have been approved for moves in recent years.
So what changed?
The We Stand With Oakland attorneys suspect it has something to do with the nearly $1.5 billion in relocation fees collected by the owners. When the NFL agrees to allow a team to move, the other 31 ownership groups are beneficiaries of fees levied on the moving franchise. It was a policy put in place to dissuade owners from leaving markets, but — according to these lawyers — has become a motivator for the group to allow them to do just that.
“Even to these people, $1.5 billion is a lot of money,” Quinn said.
Should it get to the point of taking this fight to court, Quinn doesn’t expect a familiar foe. Many of the traditional, long-term owners like the New York Giants’ Wellington Mara or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Dan Rooney, “who tended to leaven the greed of the rest of them,” are gone.
“Tagliabue was more of a leader, more of somebody who would fight his own owners when their worst instincts were coming out,” Quinn said, comparing Roger Goodell to his predecessor. “It was Paul who ultimately got us to have the deal that we cut on free agency. If he hadn’t been commissioner, we’d probably still be fighting.”
The fact that the Raiders won’t be going anywhere for at least the next two years is a boon for the effort to keep them in place permanently. Unlike the Rams, whose relocation led to the NFL being sued by St. Louis, there’s recourse to prevent the move that could be had in Oakland’s potential case. If the court were to side with Quinn, it could place an injunction on the move or force the league to repay the city for what it spent while trying to keep the Raiders.
One thing is certain: These attorneys don’t think Vegas is a viable market, and that alone creates a stink.
“At least two of the largest five casino operators are in bankruptcy and there’s a reason for that,” Quinn said. “People aren’t gambling in Vegas the way they used to because there are so many opportunities throughout the country. So it’s not like this is a vibrant, growing market. Then you look at Oakland, which is a much larger market and is growing.
“What would you conclude was the reason why they’re moving?”