NFLPA files collusion claim against NFL, claiming salary cap arrangement in uncapped year

The question we were asking all along when it came to the "spirit of the salary cap" penalties handed down to the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints was, of course, "How on earth can teams be in violation of salary cap rules when there is no salary cap in place?"

Turns out, the NFL Players Association was asking the same question, and now, they will do so in court. On Wednesday morning, the NFLPA released this statement in part:

The Class Counsel under the Reggie White settlement agreement and the NFL Players Association today filed a complaint, on behalf of the NFL players, charging the NFL, its clubs and their owners of collusion during the 2010 NFL season. The complaint details a conspiracy to violate the anti-collusion and anti-circumvention provisions in the White Settlement Agreement (SSA) by "imposing a secret $123 million per-Club salary cap for that uncapped 2010 season."

The written claim is filed with the United States District Court of Minnesota, which oversees the SSA and alleges that the league and owners acted illegally and "solely by self-interest, unconstrained by their clear and unambiguous SSA obligations."

The claim was filed just one day after Special Master Stephen Burbank dismissed the appeal filed by the Redskins and Cowboys. Clearly, the NFLPA had this one on a tripwire.

The Cowboys and Redskins were the hardest-hit by the league; the Redskins were docked $36 million in salary cap room over two seasons, and the Cowboys $10 million, for the offloading of onerous player contracts during the uncapped year of 2011. At that time, there was no official rule regarding just how much salary and other player income a team could dump during that time, but as it turned out, the NFL had verbally warned all teams that any nebulous violation of the rules that could be perceived during a capped year would be dealt with severely.

Of course, the uncapped year occurred during the lockout, after the old collective bargaining agreement ran out, and the salary cap with it. Until a new agreement could be struck, the NFL could not possibly send out written instructions for teams to avoid either offsetting or "overpaying" its players without providing the NFLPA with a boilerplate collusion case.  According the NFLPA, the penalties handed down, and the language used by the league and the Management Council, is enough to warrant the complaint.

"When the rules are broken in a way that hurts the game, we have an obligation to act. We cannot stand by when we now know that the owners conspired to collude," said NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.

"Our union recently learned that there was a secret salary cap agreement in an uncapped year. The complaint today is our effort to fulfill our duty to every NFL player. They deserve to know, above all, the facts and the truth about this conspiracy," added NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth.

''The claims have absolutely no merit and we fully expect them to be dismissed,'' the NFL said in a statement. ''On multiple occasions, the players and their representatives specifically dismissed all claims, known or unknown, whether pending or not, regarding alleged violations of the 2006 CBA and the related settlement agreement. We continue to look forward to focusing on the future of the game rather than grievances of a prior era that have already been resolved.''

The complaint centers around one very damning quote from New York Giants owner John Mara, who also serves as the Chair of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee. When the penalties were handed down in March, Mara was asked about the reasoning.

"What they did was in violation of the spirit of the salary cap," Mara said. "They attempted to take advantage of a one-year loophole … full well knowing there would be consequences."

"Such a scheme breaches express anti-collusion and anti-circumvention provisions of the SSA and the owners' duty of good faith in implementing the SSA," the NFLPA concluded in its statement.

The complaint alleges that the NFL and owners furthered colluded by "approving the very player contracts that enabled the Redskins, Cowboys, Raiders, and Saints to exceed the secret, collusive salary cap" and, prior to and on March 11, 2012, failed to disclose to the players or the NFLPA "that the true reason for the then-proposed reallocation was to penalize the Redskins, Cowboys, Raiders, and Saints for not fully abiding by the Collusive Agreement."

And that may very well be why the NFLPA signed off on the penalties that affected those teams -- so that this claim could go forward with, in their minds, the collusion then proven.

As we wrote at the time, Mara "establishes a serious conflict of interest case against the Management Council -- it could very easily be argued that existing owners should either step down from the Council, or that the council should not have the ability to rule against its competitors. That's antitrust at the very least. Second, the 'spirit of the salary cap' statement is just plain silly -- if you want something that really goes against the spirit of the salary cap, try the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement in which it was agreed by both sides that such an expiration would make an uncapped year possible. The salary cap had no spirit at that point in time, because it was dead in all possible ways."

We'll have much more on this as events warrant.