The NFL consists of 32 independent businesses. The antitrust laws prohibit certain types of concerted effort by those 32 businesses, with notable exceptions (e.g., the broadcast antitrust exemption, which allows the league to sell TV rights collectively, not individually).
Within the confines of the NFL’s labor deal, certain negotiated policies that otherwise would amount to antitrust violations (salary cap, franchise tag, the draft) are permitted. However, teams aren’t allowed to collude regarding devices that the Collective Bargaining Agreement permits.
With the NFL’s Management Council often serving as the conduit, the league’s teams definitely collude. They allegedly colluded to keep Colin Kaepernick out of the game. (They eventually paid a significant settlement of his collusion grievance.) When it comes to fully guaranteed contracts for veteran players, there’s reason to believe that they have colluded in the past — and that they would like to collude in the future.
Tuesday’s comments from Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti peel back the curtain a bit on this reality.
“That’s something that is groundbreaking,” Bisciotti said, “and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”
It’s groundbreaking not because it’s some new right the players secured at the bargaining table. It’s groundbreaking because someone finally broke ranks to fully guarantee every penny of a five-year contract with a veteran player.
Teams have had the power to fully guarantee five years of a veteran contract for much longer than five years. But despite the ever-present competition among teams to get the best possible players, no one had ever done it.
So they didn’t do it because they chose not to extend this extra benefit to secure the services of a given player, or because they knew that doing so would be frowned upon in this establishment.
Bisciotti’s remarks hint to the latter. That the league and the teams don’t want to have to guarantee four or five years of a player contract. That the Browns doing so will now force others to do what they’ve previously resisted doing, via collective will.
That’s collusion. Plain and simple.
Here’s another form of collusion that, for now, no team has broken from. And it could be the next frontier for a franchise quarterback with leverage. Someone eventually will have a contract that ties his compensation to a specific percentage of the salary cap, year in and year out.
The CBA permits it. No one has done it. No one has done it in part because the Management Council discourages it. In other words, the NFL’s teams are colluding on this point.