The contentious relationship between the NFL and the NFL Players Association continued Wednesday when the union filed a federal lawsuit alleging the league and its owners conspired in collusion to establish a "secret $123 million salary cap" in 2010, which under the previous labor agreement was designated as an uncapped year of spending.
The NFLPA filed its collusion complaint in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, claiming it falls under the supervision and oversight of Judge David Doty, who presided over the 1993 settlement of the Reggie White litigation case.
That settlement led to an unprecedented stretch of labor peace that lasted through 2010, designated as an uncapped year in which teams would not be restricted in their spending on players' salaries.
Instead, the NFLPA claims it learned on or about March 12 of this year that four teams -- the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints -- did not abide by the NFL's secret rules that effectively advised teams to operate in 2010 under a $123 million salary cap.
The NFL in March penalized the Redskins and Cowboys in cap spending at $36 million and $10 million sums, respectively, during the next two years, a decision recently upheld by Special Master Stephen Burbank's ruling, citing the NFLPA's agreement to an arrangement that would redistribute the money to other teams for cap spending.
"The league expressed their view that they thought those teams had gotten a competitive advantage," NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler said. "If we wanted other salary cap increases for the clubs [in 2012] ... the price for doing that was doing this salary cap reallocation.
"Had the union known about prior collusion, the union would never have agreed to these cap reallocations."
The union is seeking $1 billion in actual damages for players primarily in the 2010 free-agent class and $3 billion in damages as violation of the 1993 White agreement.
"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," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello scoffed at the union's lawsuit, saying the league expects it to be dismissed.
"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," Aiello said.
"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."
But Kessler said that agreement was rejected by the court.
"The document they are referring to was not accepted by the district court in Minnesota," he said Wednesday. "It was rejected and the court entered an order which only dismissed claims under White that were pending."
The NFL also points to a clause in the latest labor contract in which the union gives up the right to sue over "collusion with respect to any League Year prior to 2011."
Thus, the NFL has considered the 2010 uncapped season a closed matter ever since the new labor deal was signed last summer. Clearly, the players do not, and now are seeking compensation for lost wages caused by alleged collusion among the teams.
"Our union recently learned that there was a secret salary cap agreement in an uncapped year," NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth said. "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."
This is dangerous territory for any sport.
In baseball, the union filed collusion grievances following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons accusing management of conspiring against free agents. After arbitrators ruled in the union's favor, management agreed to a $280 million settlement. Among the players affected were Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Jack Clark and Lance Parrish.
A triple-damages provision was inserted into the sport's labor contract in 1990.
This case is not comparable to baseball's, according to Gary Roberts, dean at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
"With baseball players it was strictly a matter for arbitration," Roberts said, "where here the union is alleging a violation of the White class action. Procedurally and substantively the claims are not that similar.
"The union's problem is not in the merits of their argument, it's in the procedural part of it. They signed a CBA that said all litigations are settled. What they're saying now is that only applied to things that 'we were aware of. We only waived and settled all claims that we knew existed. We couldn't be asked to waive any claims that we did not know existed.' "
Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.