Ever since subjecting St. Louis to the abuse of the Los Angeles Rams’ ungracious withdrawal from the city three years ago, owner Stan Kroenke and the National Football League have been trying to keep the resulting litigation behind a veil of secrecy, seeking forced arbitration that would prevent the city from getting its day in open court. In the latest development, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled this week that the fight will stay in the public eye in St. Louis Circuit Court.
It’s the third time a court has frustrated the Rams’ attempts to keep the litigation out of the public eye. Keeping it public is the correct decision, not only because St. Louisans have the right to a full airing of the issues involved, but because forced arbitration by its nature tends to give an unfair advantage to big-monied parties like the NFL. Kroenke has filed a motion indicating he’ll seek a U.S. Supreme Court review. The high court has far more pressing matters to attend to.
The lawsuit, by St. Louis city and county and the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, claims the Rams committed breach of contract and fraud when the team pulled out in 2016, after local entities spent more than $16 million trying to keep it here. Among other things, the suit alleges Kroenke and other team officials intentionally misled the city about their commitment to stay in St. Louis. It’s one of four suits filed against the team, including action by personal seat license holders and other fans.
Years after St. Louis signed its original contract with Kroenke to bring the team to St. Louis in the 1990s, the NFL added mandatory arbitration clauses to its agreements. Those clauses are popular with big organizations because in the event of legal disputes, they force employees and contractors to give up their right to sue in court, making them agree in advance to let an arbitrator decide the outcome.
Forced arbitration keeps disputes out of public view, which is why big defendants like the NFL like it. And because those defendants use the process so much, they’ve mastered it, giving them a quantifiable advantage in arbitration outcomes. In the current suit, there’s no upside to the process for St. Louis or its citizens.
But as lower courts have ruled, and as the Missouri Supreme Court agreed this week, the city isn’t bound by clauses added to a contract long after it was signed. This is the very definition of common sense.
Unless Kroenke succeeds in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene (there are no obvious federal issues involved), this ruling could, at last, guarantee that the suit plays out in open court — with the welcome possibility that Kroenke will have to personally take the stand and explain his misleading and damaging treatment of the city.