Does the Lamar Jackson discussion rise to the level of collusion?

It is, to say the least, unusual for any NFL team to say publicly that it is uninterested in a potential free agent or tradable player. It is even more unusual (try, this never happens) for multiple teams to make those kinds of statements.

But in the case of Lamar Jackson, who received the non-exclusive franchise tag from the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday, that appears to be where we are.

The Atlanta Falcons…

The Miami Dolphins…

And the Carolina Panthers…

…are among those teams who have come right out and made it clear that they would and will not be negotiating with the Ravens for a trade that would secure Jackson’s services.

It certainly has some other players around the league wondering what’s going on.

Of course, all NFL teams have the right to deny any interest in Jackson for legitimate reasons. Maybe he’s not the kind of quarterback they want. Maybe the contract he’s going to get after a team gives up two first-round picks to get him on their roster is too rich. That’s all legitimate. And this could all be a smokescreen.

But when you piece together the parts here, it starts to look like at least the edges of what appears to be something in the neighborhood of collusion.

The dictionary definition of collusion is “A secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others.” In the matter of the right of any individual to fairly test the free market based on whatever constraints he or she may have, collusion blocks the lanes and makes things patently unfair.

In Jackson’s case, he’s made it clear, per reports, that he would like the same kind of fully guaranteed contract the Browns gave Deshaun Watson after acquiring him via trade from the Texans. The hue and cry from other teams was based far less on Watson’s alleged off-field crimes than it was about the horrifying precedent it set in the minds of 31 other team owners.

Watson’s deal is quite the historical albatross, and it would be so were Watson a five-time MVP with a squeaky-clean history. It is a five-year, $230 million contract, and while the annual cap hits ($54,993 million) are reasonable for a player of Watson’s skill if he still has it, the dead cap numbers are ungodly bad. Were the Browns to release Watson in the 2023 league year, they would take a dead cap charge of $219,972 million. In 2024, that “drops” to $164,979 million, in 2025, it’s still $109,986 million, and only in the last year of the deal does the dead cap match the live cap charge.

No other team owner wants to be put in this position. Now, for this to rise to the level of collision, it would have to be proven that a cabal of owners and executives got together and… well, colluded to ensure that Jackson’s negotiating power would be limited beyond and below the purview of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This is why collusion is generally difficult to impossible to prove — unless you’ve got texts, e-mails, voicemails, Slack messages, or Twitter DMs in which one owner says to other owners, “Hey, let’s made an example of Lamar Jackson,” what you’re bringing to the table falls behind the burden of proof.

Not everyone has the hubris of a Jon Gruden, who believed himself to be bulletproof to the extent that he could send racist, sexist, and homophobic e-mails to his buddies in the league. That those e-mails became public during multiple investigations of Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder (another league stalwart who believes himself beyond serios consequences, and he’s been right in that regard for a long time), put Gruden in the vise.

That said, the NFL is far from clean when it comes to collusion. The owners colluded to ban Black players from the league from 1934 through 1946. And there have been multiple instances in which those running various professional football leagues have acted in concert (or have been accused of acting in concert) to artificially limit the earning power of the players who make those leagues go.

When you get this much money involved, and a rule-breaker of a deal like the Deshaun Watson contract happens, it is not outside the realm of possibility that a group of the highest-placed people in the NFL might have a little discussion about it. As has been said, such things are somewhere between difficult and impossible to prove.

But as the Lamar Jackson story pushes forward, we should keep a sharp eye on what is said — and what is not done.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire