Collusion becomes harder to prove when it’s baked into the system

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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.

16 responses to “Collusion becomes harder to prove when it’s baked into the system

  1. Football is a collision sport. Meaning that anyone’s career can end or drastically change on one simple play – contact or non contact. Guaranteed contracts are not good for business, because if skill level drops (due to injury or otherwise), a contract is difficult to get out of. And in a salary cap sport, money tied up in former or non productive players can impact a team’s ability to win games.

    As a result, one of the means around that has been to have large signing bonuses – so players get money upfront, but can then have lower salaries in later years – with the bonus cost (for cap purposes) averaged out over the length of the contract.

    What you may find is, that if players truly want guaranteed contracts, that the overall dollar value of them may be less, as a means to mitigate against the risk of loss of skill. Sure there will always be outliers like Watson’s contract – because, let’s face it, he wasn’t going to the Browns without this. But I don’t see any team willing to take this risk with a quarterback whose primary success generates from running the ball – increasing the likelihood of injury in the future.

  2. Because of the hard cap the NFL uses, as opposed to the soft cap other sports use, fully guaranteed contracts are bad for ALL the other players and the teams and the fans.

    In a soft cap system – the rich owner digs deeper into his wallet to pay the extra money. His money, doesn’t affect anyone else.

    n a hard carp there is a fixed amount of money to go around. A dollar more for A is a dollar less for B and C.
    The problem with full guarantees is if a player declines (look at Russel Wilson or Aaron Rodgers) the team is stuck with him and can’t pay anyone else. A declining player on a full guarantee is being over paid and it forces other productive players to take less.
    It doesn’t come out of the owners wallet, it comes out of a fixed pool of money.

    I can see guarantees for some QBs and maybe a couple of LTs.
    No one else.
    It harms the other players and the sport, and the NFLPA is not bargaining in the best interest of 95% of it’s players.

  3. And because, as you say, a player’s career can be over in one simple play, the players deserve to receive guaranteed money I’d like to see this mitigated by decreases in “star” player salaries, and higher pay for the marginal players, so the impact of one injury on a guaranteed deal is lessened and mitigated across more players. There are also ways to get around the Cap implications, i.e IR/retired players salary not counting toward the Cap. But the Union is weak and because the careers are so short, nobody can afford to miss an entire year being on strike.

  4. Because, as you say, a player’s career can be over in one simple play, the players deserve to receive guaranteed money I’d like to see this mitigated by decreases in “star” player salaries, and higher pay for the marginal players, so the impact of one injury on a guaranteed deal is lessened and mitigated across more players. There are also ways to get around the Cap implications, i.e IR/retired players salary not counting toward the Cap. But the Union is weak and because the careers are so short, nobody can afford to miss an entire year being on strike.

  5. The union fought hard for guaranteed contracts, and now they don’t like what they fought and won for? Meanwhile, players are having career ending injuries playing on artificial surfaces, and the union does nothing. Perhaps the union should actually fight for things that benefit the players. I’ve never seen a weaker union in my life. Maybe the owners and the union are colluding. Did you ever think of that? I’ve often thought the owners appointed D. Smith to be their “opposition”. Seriously, if the current union leadership loses every battle, isn’t it time for change? I would definitely be looking into owner-union collusion against the players. That’s the only think that makes sense. Happy Thanksgiving football fans!

  6. Teams aren’t giving fully guaranteed contracts because it’s a horrible idea, not because of this nonsense that the owners are intimidated by the league.

  7. “…because the teams are smart enough to figure out on their own what’s expected of them by the other franchises.” I think where the complaints go wrong is in even presuming it comes down to what is “expected” of teams. That’s not it; I comes down to what teams *know* is *better* for them, not in terms of colluding for better results but simply continuing to do what makes sense. It makes sense to avoid a player who is a major distraction. Likewise, it makes sense to not fully guarantee salaries, as inevitably all that will result in is more money tied up in players who aren’t producing. Good for the individual elite player, bad for everyone else. NFL owners aren’t unhappy with the Browns because the Browns broke the line; they’re unhappy with the Browns because the Browns did something stupid that nevertheless potentially sets a precedent that the other owners will have to resist. Remember, *guaranteed salaries don’t take any more money out of the pockets of owners*, so why should owners care from a collusion perspective? All it does it affect roster flexibility to the negative, and that’s bad for fans and not-yet-paid players too!

  8. Good business sense is not collusion. No one colluded to keep Colin out of the NFL. He just wasn’t good enough to overcome the headaches he’d generate. No one clamours for Tebow. So why clamour for Colin?

    As for guaranteed contracts, who, in their right mind, would give them? You don’t need collusion to know that copying anything the Haslams do is bad for business.

  9. No one is forcing anyone to play football. You can play for what is negotiated or you don’t. Kinda simple. I can ask my employer for $5million and they say no we offer you this, which I can take it or leave it. No one “deserves” all the millions. If that’s the case negotiate it into the contract or signing bonus. But if they say no then it’s on them to decide to take it or get a real job. It would be bad business to guarantee contracts.

  10. Is it really collusion when 31 billionaires look at 1 making a bad decision and say to themselves I’ll never let myself be that stupid?

  11. Stone Cold says: “And because, as you say, a player’s career can be over in one simple play, the players deserve to receive guaranteed money”
    —————-

    Then there won’t be money for his replacement. It’s a fixed salary cap.

  12. The way I see it, if you are with a group of people, and one of them does something really stupid like walk across a busy highway, it’s not collusion to decline to do the same stupid thing.

  13. One problem with the case is that most of the examples look like they were just good smart business decisions a team very well could have concluded on their own.

  14. I’m sorry but it’s not collusion because of one outlier contract. The Browns went full Browns and I don’t blame business men for not following another bad business down a dumb rabbit hole.

    That said , if you want guaranteed contracts, work it out during your next bargaining agreement.

  15. Stupid idea. Why pay players that may no longer be on the team. It just hurts the cap number and lowers the amount teams can pay for other players. It only benefits players that fail to live up to their contract or get injured and can no longer play.

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