Sources: NFL players' union strong-armed into 'collusion', led to penalties for Cowboys, Redskins

It's hard to know which is more galling:

The fact that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is openly promoting the idea of collusion in keeping down player salaries or the fact that NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith was forced to accept it, according to sources.

As the NFLPA's annual meeting of player representatives takes place this week in Marco Island, Fla., followed by the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., next week, one issue both sides must address is what appears to be an obvious case of collusion on the part of the league.

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Earlier this month, the league announced penalties for the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys for supposed overspending in the 2010 uncapped year. While the idea that teams could "overspend" when there was no salary cap seems absurd, the league is somehow selling the idea and the union can do little about what appears to be a clear violation of the free-market system.

This is the case because the NFL was essentially able to strong-arm the NFLPA into accepting collusion in exchange for concessions on the salary cap. While some people, including current and former players, believe Smith agreed to it to protect his reputation with the players as he faced re-election this week, the issue runs deeper.

When the league and the union negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2011 lockout, one of the provisions was a "global settlement" of all pending legal issues. One of those was a collusion claim the union had filed against the league.

Fast forward to earlier this month, when the league and the union were negotiating to get the salary cap to $120.6 million, a slight increase over the $120 million it was in 2011. The union was in a bind because the cap really should have come in between $113 million and $117 million based on the complicated revenue-sharing formula.

There was a decrease despite the overall share of money going to the players actually increasing this year. However, the part of the share that went to salaries was affected by a significant increase in long-terms benefits, such as the "Legacy" fund the union created, and increases in insurance benefits. All of that is paid out of the money that goes to players.

Still, the bottom line is the bottom line.

"If the cap had been $113 million, you would have had a lot of really unhappy veterans," a source said. "There are a lot of guys who would have been cut and salaries would have declined. It would have been a fiasco for both the players and the clubs because a lot of teams would have had to cut more players than they already did."

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At the last minute, the NFL added one element to the agreement: It would agree to the higher cap only if Washington and Dallas faced a combined penalty of $46 million lost in cap space over the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of their high spending in 2010.

That was the equivalent of a bitter pill the size of golf ball.

In essence, the NFLPA had to weigh the option of keeping the salary cap high for now against the idea of accepting collusion.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello and NFLPA spokesman George Atallah both declined to discuss the matter. However, sources on both sides say the union agreed to the penalties because it had little choice.

"Why did we agree to it?" a former player said, rhetorically. "Because the league had us over a barrel. If we didn't agree to the penalty for the Redskins and the Cowboys, the cap would have been $113 million, the players would have been [angry] and De would have gotten fired.

"What the league is doing is collusion, plain and simple."

Another source disputed the fact that Smith's job status had anything to do with it. Smith, who was re-elected Thursday, ran unopposed this week. However, he has been subject to criticism in the aftermath of the new CBA. In January, attorney David Cornwell, who has since taken over as the head of the NFL Coaches Association, distributed a lengthy critique of the deal and concluded that Smith should be fired.

In this case, the union was in a difficult position because of the "global settlement." Even if the union had tried to fight the penalties against the Redskins and Cowboys, a judge or arbitrator might have viewed such legal action as a violation of the two sides' agreement.

Beyond that, if the union won after what would have been a lengthy battle (the famous 1988 baseball collusion case took two years to settle), the damages from the $46 million penalty might have been less than the increase in the cap for this season.

After doing a cost-benefit analysis, Smith and the union's executive committee decided to accept the penalties. As a result, Washington lost $36 million in cap space and Dallas lost $10 million. Washington, which maintains it did nothing wrong, is fighting the penalty and may sue the league, multiple sources said.

The league maintains that teams were warned on numerous occasions not to overspend in the uncapped year. The league views the issue as a matter of "competitive balance," even though neither Washington nor Dallas made the playoffs the past two years and there has rarely been a link between spending and winning in the NFL.

More importantly, the action by the league undercuts the idea of an uncapped year not being a threat in labor negotiations.

"This goes against everything that we negotiated for in [the past]" a player said, referring to the previous CBA and subsequent extensions. "The owners were supposed to live with the realities of the uncapped season. That was supposed to make them afraid to go uncapped. Now, they're telling the big spenders, 'You were really bad boys, we're going to punish you.' What the [expletive]? What kind of fear are they going to have in the future?"

The best analogy: If you were trying to sell something at auction and were told just before the sale that the top two spenders in the room had been barred from bidding, you might be pretty upset.

Collusion claims have had serious consequences in the past. In 1990, Major League Baseball owners settled with baseball's union to pay a then-staggering $280 million in damages based to players on three charges filed and won by the union in 1988.

While an NFL source maintained that the salary-cap penalty against the Redskins and Cowboys will be redistributed around the league (every other team except the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders, who were assessed smaller penalties, will get $1.6 million extra on the salary cap this year), that ignores the reality that many clubs will simply not spend the money because there is no team-by-team minimum spending.

"If you give Kansas City or Cincinnati or San Diego an extra $1.6 million or $3 million or $5 million, who cares? They're not going to spend it," an agent said. "When there was no cap and no spending floor, those teams didn't pay anybody. They were way below the spending limits. If Washington and Dallas had the money, they'd spend it and the league knows it."

Furthermore, sources questioned why teams that didn't spend weren't penalized by the league.

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"Couldn't you argue that teams that saved all this money by not spending are helping themselves out artificially by saving room to spend later?" the agent said. "The only teams being punished are the big spenders and that's because the league wants to hold down salaries."

The spending habits of Dallas and Washington appear to have had a ripple effect throughout the league. For instance, the contract Dallas gave to wide receiver Miles Austin in 2010 contributed to the 2011 "franchise" tag salary of $11.4 million for former San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

This year, the Chargers were faced with having to pay $13.7 million if they wanted to franchise Jackson again, and the team declined. Privately, the Chargers blamed Dallas over the Austin contract for causing San Diego to lose Jackson.

Washington, in particular, has been fighting the penalties this week. Although a league source said the team was warned on several occasions not to overspend, a union source said that's just further proof of collusion.

"The Redskins did nothing wrong. All they did was spend money," the union source said.

While one union source said that the organization's executive committee, which is made up of players such as NFLPA president and former player Kevin Mawae, quarterback Drew Brees and cornerback Domonique Foxworth, is in agreement with the strategy, others in and around the union are concerned.

"We have a lot of questions that need to be answered," one player rep said. "We all understood what was happening during the negotiations and how rough it was. But now it's like there's one thing after another that's happening that we don't get explained [to us] until after it's all over."

Another former player preached patience, but was also concerned.

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"You have to give the deal a couple of years to see where we're really going to be, but things don't seem to be going well when we allow collusion," the former player said. "Now, maybe that was a one-off situation where the union gave up something to get something. That's all part of a bigger negotiation and you understand that when it's explained to you.

"But nobody is really getting an explanation on this stuff. You have collusion going on over here and they're manipulating the salary cap over there. There's a bunch of stuff going on and you don't know if it's good negotiating or if people trying to cover their butts. All I know is, the precedent really bothers me."

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