Judge Rules Against Antitrust Suit

CINCINNATI (AP) - An antitrust suit claiming officials and taxpayers were pushed into financing a new stadium to keep the Bengals in Cincinnati was filed after time had run out, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel unanimously agreed with a federal district judge who dismissed the suit filed by Hamilton County against the Bengals and the NFL because it was not filed within a four-year statute of limitations.

County voters approved a half-cent sales tax hike in 1996 for the $450 million Paul Brown Stadium, which opened in 2000. A 30-year lease was signed in 1997. The antitrust lawsuit was filed in 2003.

By dismissing the suit, the courts didn't rule on the county officials' claims that they were victimized by monopoly power. Appeals Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton wrote that the 6th Circuit panel didn't need to decide whether there is an antitrust problem with the NFL's control over its number of teams and cities.

Sutton added: "The county, like all local governments competing to attract professional sports teams, understood this reality long before it entered the May 1997 lease and understood the leveraging truth that goes with it: The only thing worse than having a losing team is having no team - no team for the community and its political leaders to support and no reason to say: 'There's always next year.'"

Hamilton County commissioner Todd Portune, who initiated the lawsuit, said officials would consult with their attorneys, but were unlikely to pursue further legal appeals in their effort to get a more equitable deal with the Bengals.

The Bengals called the ruling a vindication for the club and the NFL.

"The final chapter has been written on the lawsuit ... and as a community, we can now turn toward solving today's challenges," Mike Brown, Bengals owner and president, said in a statement.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had no comment on the latest ruling.

In its appeal, the county contended officials were misled into thinking that the Bengals' finances were so bleak they needed a new stadium to survive, and didn't find out until 2001 that the team was profitable. The appeals court cited many earlier reports and comments about the Bengals' profitability and about NFL tactics in gaining new stadiums and favorable leases.

"With red flags flying, the county instead moved forward with negotiations and signed the stadium lease," the court said.

While the Bengals finished their first season in the new stadium with a 4-12 record, the court said, "It is Hamilton County that claims it was the real loser because it signed a lease with the Bengals for the stadium that it now calls 'unconscionable.'"

Portune said the court rulings are disappointing because they don't decide the key issues.

"It seems that every judicial authority that has taken a look at this agreed that it is a terrible deal. But rather than acting on those aspects, they have instead hung their hats on a technicality," he said.

He said the stadium terms have helped push the county into a financial crunch, facing deficits of $200 million or more.

The appellate opinion recounted the history of pro football in Cincinnati, saying the Cincinnati Celts were the first team in 1921, "long before Ickey Woods shuffled across the end zone, long before Kenny Anderson and Boomer Esiason led the Bengals to Super Bowls XVI and XXIII (a team from another circuit, the San Francisco 49ers, won both games)."