Here’s a look at how collusion happens among NFL owners

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In recent years, the word “collusion” has come up in various contexts. As used with respect to the NFL, collusion typically means owners coordinating their business practices in ways not permitted by the Collective Bargaining Agreement or the law.

The CBA permits coordinated practices for the player workforce, because the NFL and the NFL Players Association have created a “multi-employer bargaining unit.” Specific rules like the salary cap and the draft would violate the antitrust laws, but for the existence of the union. (That’s why the union’s first move in the 2011 lockout was to shut down operations and to sue the NFL for violation of the antitrust laws.)

As it relates to things the teams are permitted to do by the CBA (e.g., give players fully-guaranteed contracts), an agreement among teams or a directive from the league (usually, the Management Council) to refrain from doing such things becomes impermissible collusion.

So how does it happen? Well, it potentially happens four times per year, when the owners meet. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said during an October appearance on #PFTPM that the union refers to those quarterly ownership meetings as “collusion meetings.”

It’s no different than the CEOs of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Subway, Long John Silver’s, KFC, and every other fast-food (good food quickly) restaurant meeting four times per year to compare notes on how they’ve been doing business and how they’ll be doing business. These are competitors, not partners. Any effort to, for example, cap wages or restrict employee movement from one good-food-quickly restaurant to the next would be an antitrust violation.

For the NFL, it’s a little more complicated. The 32 owners are both partners and competitors. As it relates to the things the CBA allows each of them to do, they are competitors. If they partner up and agree not to do those things (e.g., if they refuse to give out fully-guaranteed contracts), they are illegally colluding.

As it relates to Lamar Jackson, the seeds of collusion (if any) were planted last year, with the blowback the Browns experienced for giving quarterback Deshaun Watson a five-year, fully-guaranteed contract. Multiple owners spoke out against the deal, a stunning move that gives credence to collusive behavior. Later in the year, the NFLPA filed a grievance alleging that the owners were colluding to keep “certain quarterbacks” from receiving fully-guaranteed deals.

It’s no surprise, then, that multiple teams have preemptively slammed the door on pursuing Jackson. If they never engage him in negotiations, they never have to say “no” to his request for a fully-guaranteed deal. Which means that there’s never a parade of teams that refused to give Lamar a fully-guaranteed deal.

While the failure of any team to pursue him (if that’s what happens) would be proof of collusion, more evidence would likely be required than that to show that the decision was coordinated and not coincidental.

It’s similar to what happened several years back, during the shunning of Colin Kaepernick. His grievance gathered enough evidence to result in a seven-figure settlement. While that’s peanuts when spread among 32 teams, the NFL would have fought like hell if the NFL believed it would have won.

So as free agency begins, the subtext becomes whether evidence of collusion can be harvested if/when Jackson is ignored. It would be far easier to harvest that evidence if Jackson had an agent interacting with teams.

Maybe, for this reason, the NFLPA should consider nudging Jackson to hire an agent. Apart from the fact that it’s currently (and has been) in Jackson’s best interests to do so, it’s now in the union’s best interests to have an agent pounding the pavement for a potential contract offer for Jackson, since it will be easier to develop know-it-when-you-see-it proof of collusion if/when the agent keeps pestering team after team after team and getting nowhere at all.

Regardless, it will never be easy to prove collusion conclusively. The teams are smart enough to not create paper trails. And they don’t need to, not when the owners get together at least four times per year to potentially collude not through texts or emails or phone records but through conversations that happen behind closed doors and/or during cocktail-party harrumphs and guffaws while holding a drink in one hand and a small plate of hors d’oeuvres in the other.

49 responses to “Here’s a look at how collusion happens among NFL owners

  1. If they are colluding as it relates to Lamar Jackson, then I hope they are successful.

  2. I reject the premise that “the failure of any team to pursue him would be proof of collusion”…. it’s equally plausible that each team has decided, independently of one another, that they aren’t willing to give 2 1st round picks for the privilege of guaranteeing an oft-injured QB a quarter of a billion dollars. When it’s the right decision, I don’t have a hard time believing that each owner arrived at the same conclusion without colluding with the others.

  3. Competitors yes but they’re also colleagues operating and living in the same society. Irresponsible actions can impact others. The owners make the league, and they set the market. The fact that fellow owners discuss state of the union matters should come as no surprise and it is impossible to legislate no matter how many “antitrust laws” you want to write in. It is the owners’ prerogative to make decisions as they see fit, and just because the Browns made a brain dead business decision, doesn’t mean other teams have to abide. Lamar is entitled to what a team is willing to pay and nothing more

  4. The owners voicing their opinion on another’s business is not itself collusion. Owners saying they were not happy with the fully guaranteed contract of D. Watson publicly is not collusion. They can even state that they would never do business that way because they feel it’s bad for the direction of the league. None of that is collusion. It’s when and if L. Jacksons contract can’t be worked out and it’s because owners got together and said something along the lines of ” we can’t let anything happen like what happened with the D. Watson deal. Let’s re-set the market by nobody giving into L. Jacksons demands. So far no ody sees that happening. Owners seem to think that the often injured QB who runs and puts himself in many injury vulnerable situations isn’t worth the risk and 2 firsts and a 2nd. I happen to agree. Plus his accuracy is sketchy.

  5. Always laughable when the millionaires in the NFLPA think they can win out over the billionaires who sign their paychecks.

  6. Is it collusion? If I’m a franchise owner, do I rush out there to give a quarterback a guaranteed 230M deal? He’s clearly trending towards a declining career due to style of play. I surely would not. I would have with Watson, he’s a good bet long term. I might not with Josh Allen, he’s got same issues Jackson has. (By the way Baltimore offered Jackson more than Allen got) There is no collusion, at all. Not a whiff of it.

  7. Lamar is getting a chance to test the market. What more could he ask for?

    A fully guaranteed contract for an often injured player does not make good business sense and the Ravens have made good business decisions historically.

    The DeSean Watson deal is a complete anomaly drafted by a far less competent organization. It was and will be a horrible move for the Browns for years to come.

    I think the Ravens made a very classy move here by allowing Lamar to have every opportunity to make as much money as he can.

    BTW, collusion will never cease to exist. Even though I don’t believe it to be the case here. Quite the opposite actually.

  8. Lamar has no agent and allegedly sat out games rather than risk injury before a big payday.

    It’s not collusion, he just made his own bed.

  9. When you get your way it will be the end of the NFL. Maintaining a competitive balance using a salary cap is what made it the #1 sport in the country. It’s the Golden Goose, and you want it dead. Very weird.

  10. So it’s out of bounds for owners to have a sensible discussion and compare notes as it relates to the financial well-being of their individual businesses, yet it’s entirely acceptable for a union to “nudge” a member into representation that they neither want nor requested? Right…

  11. I am sure there is collusion as we’ve seen Goodell work with some owners to frame the Pats or come down harder on some teams while going very light on infractions that are worse, but targeting a player’s free agent value like a Lamar Jackson isn’t the best example.

    If he was such a hot commodity, Baltimore would have already paid him and teams would have already raced in with 2 1st rd picks and given him a deal by now.

    Fact is, he’s plateaued and he’s an injury risk with an immaturity problem, while not throwing a football very well.

  12. Collusion in Lamar Jackson’s case is non-sense. He’s simply not that good a quarterback and not worth $40-50 million. Is he a dynamic athlete? Absolutely. But he is a terrible passer. What is one of a quarterback’s most important jobs? Passing the football. The MVP argument is crap. Cam Newton won an MVP. Newton, like Jackson, had a single tremendous season that was an outlier.

  13. There is no collusion. GMs and owners have decided 2 first round draft picks and tens of millions of guaranteed money is too much for Lamar Jackson. He has 1 playoff win. His play has regressed the last 2 years. He is simply not worth the price. If there were any owners who thought he would lead them to 1 Super Bowl they would pay the price. End of story.

  14. There’s a huge difference between actual collusion, and like-minded thinking by similarly-situated, profit driven people. Foregoing guaranteed contracts in a league where injuries move betting lines is the latter.

  15. Just think. If it werent for the Jets the entire NFL would also be “colluding” against Aaron Rodgers. And who are these “certain QBs” the league is colluding against giving fully guaranteed contracts to? As far as I know Watson is the only QB with a 100% fully guaranteed contract.

  16. Ahhh yes … as soon as a player does not get exactly what he wants then it is collusion. Got it.

  17. The masses keep their heads buried in the sand. Owners profit. Going according to plan

  18. If I own a team I should be able to pay anyone I want and hire anyone I want. If I don’t wanna pay, that’s my business

  19. Apparently, this should bother me, it does not. I believe Jackson has had numerous opportunities to sign a really great contract, just not a Watson contract. When talking heads criticize the Ravens they often cite numerous contracts that other QBs have signed. Most of which the Ravens likely would have been happy to sign Jackson to. Both sides have to agree and we just saw Jackson not finish a season, possibly related to contract issues.

  20. Owners should not be scared of fully guaranteed contracts for the right players. Lamar is not the right player to receive a fully guaranteed contract.

    His last 3 seasons ended in injury. Concussion in the divisional round, ankle injury, and knee injury. Missed 9 games in the last two seasons; that’s 27% missed time.

    There also the small problem that he is difficult to deal with. Baltimore had trouble in the past getting a hold of him to discuss a contract.

  21. If Patrick Mahomes demanded a guaranteed contract he would have gotten one. So too would a younger Tom Brady. As good as Lamar is, he ain’t them.

  22. I hope that Lamar Jackson and the Ravens can come to an agreement soon that is good for both him and the team. He’s a great quarterback who is a joy to watch. I certainly understand why the Ravens don’t want to follow the Browns’ dopey path – football is the demolition derby of all sports, making the fully guaranteed contracts in other sports an irrelevant comparison. In the economics of the NFL, Jackson should forget about the Watson lunacy,and “settle” for being paid at the top, with the second highest guarantee.

  23. If the NFLPA is so worried about fully guaranteed contracts then maybe the NFLPA and Demaurice Smith should pay for Lamar’s agent!

  24. I wonder if Lamar is being advised to not get an agent via PA because the agent will want to work WITH the team and forgo 100% guarantees

  25. Lamar will have to give in to the Ravens offers. Collusion or noa collusion, it is clear that NOBODY will give lamar a 100% guaranteed contract.

  26. The NFLPA is defining smart business practices as “collusion”. Fully guaranteed long term contract is a foolish business practice NOT collusion.

  27. Or… the seven or eight teams who need a QB all independently think there are better options than guaranteed money for Jackson.

  28. Seriously, who cares? They are colluding to only give a man $150m guaranteed in a 5 year contract instead of $250M. Unions were created to protect factory workers, not multi-millionaires. I’m sure there are bigger labor problems in America than a profession with a minimum salary that puts every employee in the top 1% and pays the top end players hundreds of millions of dollars.

  29. If one owner thinks that giving LaMar Jackson a guaranteed contract would get them a Super Bowl they would do it.

  30. LJ wants $240M guaranteed. And only because Watson got that deal. But here is the thing. Watson while being a horrible person is a better QB. Browns were a desperate franchise gave him a stupid contract. LJ shouldn’t expect the same deal as Watson but he does. The Ravens offered $160-80M.
    LJ should have taken it.

  31. I don’t think I need a meeting to determine I don’t want either one of those guys on my team.

  32. Most of these commenters have no grasp of antitrust law. Also, there are other pathways besides league meetings.

  33. It’s going to be a hard choice selecting my worst word of the year winner: collusion or woke.

  34. One issue with the argument, only the pundits (who are often incorrect) and players think he is a top tier QB. He got the mvp because of his running ability not his passing/ reading the defense/ leading the team play. And he has been epic failure in the playoffs, so why would any owner want to give up 2 number 1 picks for a player that cannot win a playoff game. That is telling the fans we only care about winning just enough to keep you buying tickets but we will never be a real contender.

    And, then there is the can’t play the whole season due to injuries over the past few years.

  35. “While the failure of any team to pursue him (if that’s what happens) would be proof of collusion”.

    At the very best, this would be “evidence” of collusion, but no where close to being considered “proof”. Using “proof” in this example would have been an incredibly ignorant statement to be spoken by any random dude, but the fact that this is coming from a lawyer like yourself is inexcusable. It shows how completely biased and non-credible you are on player- related topics like this.

  36. I See nothing wrong with the Kaep or Jackson situation….

    In both cases, the young men could have gotten they money and never put themselves in their situation…
    Kaep greedy for attention, Jackson greedy for money and greed got them both in a jam…
    NO ONE forced them to make BAD choices!

  37. Are you sure it’s not the players and their agents who are guilty of collusion? I mean, there are mediocre QB’s who have never been successful in the league that are making $35-$40 million per year. Lots of guys are being paid way more than they’re worth. Besides, half the owners wouldn’t know how to do anything in their own best interest. Some owners who inherited teams are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Whatever is happening, it’s happening in favor of the players, and it’s because of the incompetence of owners and GM’s. If you want to call that collusion, the players should be loving it.

  38. Why are you still pushing the false narrative that Kaepernick was even a decent quarterback? He was good for his first few years and once defenses figured him out, he was below average. Just because you keep making an incorrect statement doesn’t make it true!

  39. If the Ravens gave Lamar the exclusive tags then they are bad guys for not letting him test the market. You can’t win when people have already made up their mind about a conspiracy theory.

  40. Obviously the NFL is colluding to keep me out of the league. Or could they possibly think a 41 year old with a dad bod isn’t worth their time?

    Someone said before on here about Kaep. If 32 people step around the steaming pile of dog poop in the street, did they collude? Or did they all make an independent decision in their best interest?

  41. What are the downsides to a team pursuing Lamar Jackson?

    They have to lock up that offer in cap space and the Ravens have 5 business days to match. That means the team is in limbo for 5 days, not knowing if 50 million or more will be consumed in paying Lamar.

    They MUST have that cap space available the entire week.
    They miss out on other free agents.
    They may miss out on another QB if the Jackson offer is met by the Ravens.
    They look inept.
    They have to give up 2 number ones and then pay top dollar to Lamar.

    So yes, there is downside to a team. They lose a week of free agency.

  42. If the owners are all about collusion, why aren’t they actively limiting elite QB salaries? Top QB salaries will quickly zoom past $50M and will hit $60M soon enough. Yes, those salaries can be supported while TV contracts and gambling money bring in bucket loads of cash but my point is the owners clearly don’t have a problem with it. Having said that, you can’t have it both ways, you can’t have $50M/yr contracts guaranteed long term. You could maybe have $25M contracts guaranteed for 5+ years but I don’t think any of today’s QBs would line up for that contract.
    There is no collusion. For the most part (except for the Browns) these are sound business decisions being made. Fans should actually be happy that longer term contracts aren’t guaranteed. Never mind ticket prices, how would Bronco fans feel if Russell’s contract was guaranteed for say 7 years, or Cardinals fans with Kyler?

  43. He is a top ten qb. The Ravens deserve this mess for offering him crap. A team with a low first round pick should sign him to a poison pill deal. Give the aravens two low first round picks. Here is looking at you Pats.

  44. If I was one of the other 31 NFL team owners and I watched Lamar get injured, milk the injury because Lamar wanted the bag, and then have the nerve not to show up to chill on the bench and cheer on his teammates in last years wildcard vs Cincy, he isn’t the supposed leader that he thinks he is and I wouldn’t want him leading the team that I own. Sorry, Lamar is not a great QB, Lamar’s 2019 MVP doesn’t mean jack squat to me team wise in 2023 & beyond, and seeing as money is the most important thing in Lamar’s eyes from his own actions, bye Felicia. Lamar and his agent/mom shouldn’t even bother talking to me because I’ll take my chances on some other player who actually takes his job seriously and acts like professional athlete/leader/not a bullheaded child who thinks very highly of himself when he should really hire a real agent and take his career more seriously. I’m not colluding with anyone, I just don’t want the Watson stink or your nonsense anywhere near my team.

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