The NFL Players Association hopes to prove that NFL teams have colluded in refusing to give “certain quarterback” fully-guaranteed contracts, like the one signed earlier this year by Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. It won’t be easy.
Beyond the challenges associated with getting the arbitrator to give the union access to text messages and/or emails that that possibly will contain a smoking gun that proves coordination when it comes to refusing to give out fully-guaranteed deals, there’s a separate reality when it comes to the NFL and collusion. It’s so baked into the overall system that it can’t be proven in any one, specific case.
The NFL consists of 32 independent businesses. The existence of a multi-employer collective bargaining agreement allows these 32 independent businesses to set common rules regarding minimum pay, salary cap, the franchise tag, and other devices regarding player compensation. Beyond the specific limitations contained in the CBA, these independent businesses can do whatever they want — such as give all players fully-guaranteed contracts.
But the teams coordinate their activities, through the league office. 345 Park Avenue reviews every contract. The league’s Management Council provides overall guidance to the teams. Over time, teams learn that certain decisions are frowned upon by the league and/or the Management Council.
Back in 2006, the Viking used an aggressively creative offer sheet to pilfer guard Steve Hutchinson from the Seahawks. The Seahawks went tit-for-tat, using the same technique to take receiver Nate Burleson from Minnesota. At the league meetings that year, the Vikings and Seahawks executives responsible for the maneuver had their heads clunked together. And then the league changed the rules to prevent other teams from doing the same thing in the future.
In 2012, the Dallas and Washington got smacked around by the league for daring to treat the uncapped year of 2010 as (wait for it) uncapped.
Over time, the teams have leaned the cause-and-effect connection between getting cute with the rules and landing in hot water with the league. Did the teams really need to actively collude when Colin Kaepernick became a free agent and no one signed him? Did the teams really need to actively collude when the Browns gave Watson a fully-guaranteed contract and others (like Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti) publicly lamented the implications of this shift in the way teams do business?
The NFL and its teams are, in the vast majority of situations, aligned on everything. Collusion in any one case isn’t needed, because the teams are smart enough to figure out on their own what’s expected of them by the other franchises.
With rare exceptions. And when those exceptions happen, the team responsible for it acquires temporary pariah status, along with eventual retribution. As to the Browns, it’s believed by some in league circles that certain owners insisted on a suspension of less than one year for Watson because a one-year ban would have helped the Browns by tolling the five-year Watson deal, putting him under contract through 2027, not 2026. An 11-game suspension made Watson irrelevant to the Browns for 2022, while also burning the first year of his contract.
So if the overriding message when it comes to bucking the broader trend is “f–k around and find out,” most teams will know not to f–k around. When it comes to, for example, refusing to give veteran players fully-guaranteed contracts, express collusion isn’t needed. The collusion is implied.
And, in turn, impossible to prove.