The NFL Players Association filed a collusion complaint against the NFL in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota on Wednesday, alleging the league imposed a secret $123 million salary cap during the uncapped year of 2010.
The NFLPA's complaint points to the league's punishment of the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders as proof that restraints were in place to suppress salaries during that year. The filing also alleges that internal NFL calculations showed that Washington was $102,833,047 in excess of the secret cap, Dallas was $52,938,774 over, Oakland was $41,914,060 over and New Orleans was $36,329,770 over.
On Tuesday, system arbitrator Stephen Burbank upheld a league decision to take $36 million of cap space from the Redskins and $10 million of cap space from the Cowboys as a result of contracts that the league has said violated the spirit of competitive balance. The league, by owner vote, agreed to take that cap space and spread it among 28 other teams, excluding the Raiders and Saints as beneficiaries as a result of their 2010 actions.
"When the rules are broken in a way that hurts the game, we have an obligation to act," said NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in a statement. "We cannot stand by when we now know that the owners conspired to collude."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello responded to the players' claims with a comment: "The filing of these claims is prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement and separately by an agreement signed by the players' attorneys last August. The claims have absolutely no merit and we fully expect them to be dismissed. 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."
According to part of the union's complaint, "The conspiracy alleged herein resulted in actual damages to the players of up to $1 billion, if not substantially more." NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler said on a conference call Wednesday that the damages are made up entirely of lost salary, but added that the discovery process would be necessary to get a more exact total.
"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."
The NFLPA will be represented by Kessler in this case, which could hinge on jurisdiction.
The separate agreement Aiello referenced in his statement pertains to the NFL's assertion that the Aug. 4, 2011 settlement of the 1993 case White v. the NFL was global, and should prevent any collusion charges from going forward. The NFLPA has responded that new information has surfaced since, and should allow the case to proceed.
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The agreement reads that the "parties stipulate to the dismissal with prejudice of all claims, known and unknown, whether pending or not" including "asserted collusion with respect to the 2010 league year," and was signed by Kessler. Kessler said on the NFLPA's conference call on Wednesday that a Minnesota court rejected the stipulation.
On Aug. 11, 2011, Judge David Doty "ordered that all claims pending regarding the stipulation and settlement agreement are dismissed. All other outstanding motions are dismissed," according to a court order. Kessler said Doty's specification on "pending" cases left the door open for cases that were not pending, such as the current collusion case.
When asked for a response to that assertion, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email, "Not accurate. A stipulation of dismissal on behalf of the union and the White class was signed by Kessler and filed in the court. The union is bound by that document."
The union also claims that it entered into the "reallocation letter," which set the salary cap for 2011, and signed off on the Cowboys' and Redskins' penalties before that new information on the alleged 2010 cap -- and related violations -- surfaced. Kessler said the NFLPA had no idea, at that point, that the alleged collusion was happening.
"Before we signed the agreement, they told us they thought the Redskins and Cowboys had taken advantage of there being no salary cap, and the league felt it was necessary (to punish them) in order to equalize that competitive advantage," Kessler said. "The union didn't agree with that, but that was the price of doing the deal."
Both Kessler and NFLPA spokesman George Atallah described the reallocation proposal, which borrowed from future years to keep the cap at its 2011 level and included the Washington and Dallas sanctions, as a "take it or leave it" offer from the league just prior to the beginning of the 2012 league year.
Kessler also said that the case's direction to Minnesota, and quite possibly into the hands of the traditionally union-friendly Doty, was simply a matter of procedure. He added that the timing of Wednesday's announcement, a day after Burbank dismissed the Redskins' and Cowboys' appeal of the salary-cap sanctions, was "100 percent pure coincidence," and that the union hasn't had help in this case from any of the NFL teams, outside of appeal filings from Washington and Dallas.