As a certain Internet hack pointed out during Wednesday night’s NBC SportsTalk, the collusion case filed by the NFLPA on Wednesday won’t impact anything that fans see on the football field — unless, of course, part of the settlement of the case includes concessions from the NFL that result in changes to on-field rules. If the claims go to trial and if the NFL loses and if the ruling survives an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and possibly the Supreme Court, the matter will be resolved via the writing of a check with a lot of zeroes.
And so most of you don’t care about the collusion case. But you should. It’s the best evidence that, in the nine months since the CBA was resolved, the relationship between the NFL and the NFLPA has once again become combative and toxic — and it may stay that way for the foreseeable future, and beyond. The quality of the relationship will make it harder for the two parties to strike deals on matters that are in the best interests of the game, especially since the filing of the collusion claim undermines dramatically the level of trust between the NFL and NFLPA. Put simply, the NFLPA won’t believe anything the NFL ever says, and the NFL won’t believe that any deal signed by the NFLPA will be honored.
The case at hand, which arises from claims that the NFL engaged in collusion during the uncapped year of 2010, was sparked by the cap penalties imposed on the Cowboys and Redskins two years after the fact. During a Wednesday conference call to discuss the situation, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah and NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler made it clear that, when the NFL asked the union to agree to the cap penalties, the NFLPA did so. Atallah and Kessler consistently characterized the proposal, which entailed the union agreeing to the cap penalties in exchange for a willingness by the NFL to pump up the salary cap in 2012, as a “take it or leave it” proposition. The NFLPA wanted to find a way to drive the team-by-team spending limit higher (some reports suggest that it would have been as low as $113 million, $7 million per team lower than 2011), and the NFL would agree to make the cap higher only if the NFLPA agreed to the cap penalties.
Addressing the issue via questions from several different media members who participated in the call, Kessler said that he didn’t view the request to remove cap space from the Cowboys and Redskins as evidence of collusion in 2010, even though the NFL explained that the two teams had “taken advantage” of the absence of a salary cap to gain a “competitive advantage” in 2010.
Frankly, that’s when the bells and whistles and alarms should have sounded. By proposing to take cap dollars from the Cowboys and Redskins now, the NFL was essentially admitting to the union that the league had engaged in collusion in 2010, and that the NFL was now going to punish the teams that refused to go along with the unwritten rule of limited spending in the uncapped year.
The fact that the NFL believed all collusion claims from 2010 had been waived likely made the league willing in 2012 to approach the NFLPA with proposed cap penalties that amounted to a confession of collusion. The fact that the new CBA and the legal documents submitted in connection with the settlement of multiple pending antitrust lawsuits likely made the NFLPA less inclined to refuse to agree to the cap penalties and pursue a collusion claim. Besides, the NFLPA needed the league to help drive the salary cap higher in 2012; if the cap had been lower this year than it was last year, the re-election of DeMaurice Smith as executive director in late March 2012 would have been far less of a lock. (Atallah declined during the conference to answer a question regarding speculation that, if the cap had dropped, the NFLPA in turn would have dropped De Smith, whose contract was expiring.)
Moving forward, the NFLPA will be forced to deal with two major hurdles, before the collusion case can get rolling. First, the union will have to persuade Judge Doty that the collusion claim wasn’t released as part of the new CBA. Second, the union will have to explain persuasively why it chose to essentially ratify the past collusion by agreeing to the imposition of cap penalties against the teams that refused to collude.
That said, the NFL made this mess by insisting on smacking the knuckles of the Cowboys and Redskins — and then by talking publicly about it. Even if Judge Doty dismisses the collusion claim by finding that all collusion claims had been released as part of the new CBA, the point the NFL wanted to make to the Cowboys and Redskins is coming with a significant price, both in legal fees and in style points.