Cap controversy shows NFL at its worst

Redskins fans will have to endure their team paying a $36 million penalty over the next two years. Larry French/Getty Images

The NFL should be ashamed of itself, but it’s not, because shame is not a concept with which the people who run the NFL are acquainted. The NFL is a corporate monolith so used to having things its own way, so safe from criticism from the people who cover it, watch it on TV and unthinkingly pay small fortunes to attend its games in person that it quite literally believes it can make up its own rules and get away with it.

The news Monday that the league is docking the Washington Redskins $36 million and the Dallas Cowboys $10 million against the salary cap over the next two years (and spreading that extra cap room out among 28 other teams) isn’t likely to upset anyone other than those two teams and their fans. That’s how the NFL works. No one cares too much as long as their team wins, their fantasy team does well and the games are on TV every Sunday at 1 p.m. This issue, and likely this column, will be forgotten in a few hours when the “free-agency frenzy” the league is selling as this month’s offseason goodie bag kicks into high gear and everybody starts obsessing over which players their teams did or didn’t get -- just the way the league likes it.

Those ends, the NFL apparently believes, justify all means. Because what the NFL has done in this salary-cap case is a despicable abuse of the power handed to it by flocks of fans who happily fund it while wearing blinders.

If what the NFL did in 2010 was secretly tell its teams not to overspend in an uncapped year, then it engaged in an act that's illegal in any other industry. If that’s what happened, it’s collusion, plain and simple. It’s a bunch of businessmen who operate all of the businesses in a given industry getting together to limit the earning potential of the workers in that industry. Anyone with even the most basic understanding of labor law would classify that as collusion.

Two teams apparently declined to engage in this activity, even under threat of penalty from the league overseers. (Actually almost every team did what the Redskins and Cowboys did. Those two teams just did it more, and to an extent that upset the other owners.) Obviously, the Redskins and Cowboys didn’t do this to make a moral stand. They did it because they were trying to gain a competitive advantage over the other teams. But this was an uncapped year -- a year in which the richer teams theoretically should have been able to obtain a competitive advantage. If the league was telling teams to limit their spending in an uncapped year and the Redskins and Cowboys defied them, then what the Redskins and Cowboys did was technically legal and what the league was doing was not.

But that doesn’t matter to the NFL, which defines collusion very specifically under the collective bargaining agreement so as to protect itself and, as usual, operates by its own laws. After the story broke Monday, the league released a statement that said, “The Management Council Executive Committee determined that the contract practices of a small number of clubs during the 2010 league year created an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance, particularly in light of the relatively modest salary cap growth projected for the new agreement's early years.”

The statement goes on to say that the settlement, which resulted in the punishments for Dallas and Washington, was agreed upon by the parties in the collective bargaining agreement, which it was. The NFLPA agreed not to pursue collusion charges against the league in exchange for the league agreeing (a) not to cut the 2012 salary cap and (b) to spread the Redskins’ and Cowboys’ penalty money among the other teams so that the total amount of cap space league-wide would not be reduced.

Effectively, the league found a way to excuse itself for engaging in an illegal act and got the players to sign off on it. The only people who are suffering are the teams that decided, two years ago, not to go along with the illegal plan by which the league was ordering its teams to abide. The whole thing reeks of witch-hunt impropriety, from the fact that teams (such as Jacksonville and Tampa Bay) that drastically underspent that season because there was no salary floor aren’t being punished for the impact that had on competitive balance to the troublesome fact that the chairman of the aforementioned NFL Management Council is the owner of the Giants, who play in the same division as the two teams being docked.

The NFL should be embarrassed by this whole situation, but it isn’t, and won’t be. It never is. It does what it wants to do when it wants to do it, and it finds a way to excuse it after the fact. It is the epitome of modern corporate greed and arrogance. The big-money ends always justify the means, and we’re all complicit, continuing to feed the beast because it entertains us.

You may not care about this issue if you’re not a fan of the Cowboys or the Redskins. But if you think the league wouldn’t do the same kind of thing to your team, legal or not, fair or not, and find a way to get away with it as long as it suited its purposes, you’re kidding yourself. The NFL doesn’t care about you. It cares about itself. It cares about getting its way, no matter what. Sooner or later, fans of every team will find this out.