PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful to New York Giants owner John Mara for stopping Sunday afternoon in the Breakers lobby to talk to a few of us about the salary cap penalties against the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. He didn't hold back, and as you can see if you scroll through this blog's timeline, we got plenty of good material out of it.
But in the grand scheme of things, when we sit down to talk about the right and the wrong of this whole situation, there's very little right and a whole big pile of wrong, and the defiant stance Mara took Sunday afternoon made that pile much bigger.
The aggrieved parties in this instance are the Redskins and the Cowboys, and they're keeping quiet on the whole thing. Sure, they filed a grievance against the NFL and the NFLPA on Sunday, seeking to get some relief from the combined $46 million in salary cap room they've been docked over the next two offseasons. But they declined several opportunities Sunday to add to the rhetoric.
Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' director of player personnel: "Within the confines of our collective bargaining agreement, we are trying to have a voice and a hearing in terms of our cap situation."
Bruce Allen, the Redskins' general manager: "I have nothing to say on that. We'll let the league speak to it."
Mike Shanahan, the Redskins' head coach: "I'll let the commissioner speak about that."
We tried egging these guys on. I read Jones the quote from Mara in which he said the Redskins and Cowboys were lucky they didn't lose draft picks for this, and all Jones said was, "That's John's opinion. Not my opinion."
But Mara came out guns-a-blazin'. And if there are people out there who believe (as I do) that the NFL has acted with irresponsible, petty arrogance in this case and imposed unjustified penalties against teams that broke no actual rules, Mara's stance isn't likely to change their minds.
There was no salary cap in 2010. This is a fact. Mara repeatedly brushed that aside during questioning Sunday, irritated at the fact's mere existence. "We've had a cap for 29 of the last 30 years," he said more than once, and he explained rather clearly that teams were told, more than once, to watch the way they spent money and structured contracts during the uncapped 2010 season. He basically admitted to what, in any other business, would be collusion and grounds for an antitrust lawsuit. But he bristled at the mention of that word, too, saying, "This has nothing to do with collusion. It has to do with teams attempting to gain a competitive advantage through a loophole in the system. They attempted to take advantage of it knowing full well there would be consequences."
What we know about this case is that the NFL basically engaged in a sanctioned form of collusion in 2010, telling its teams that yeah, there was no cap, but that they needed to act as though there were one because they were sure the cap would come back and it was wrong to use this "loophole" as a means of gaining an advantage against the cap in future years. Mara admitted all of that Sunday, and he did so in a way that strongly indicates he believes himself to be on the correct side of the argument.
But he is not, of course. And in more ways than one, he is very much in the wrong.
Mara is wrong because the only thing of which the Redskins and Cowboys are guilty is failing to honor a shady gentleman's agreement between 32 billionaires who don't want to pay their employees any more than they have to. What the NFL, Mara and the other owners did, effectively imposing a salary cap when none had been agreed to by the other party (i.e., the players) in their collective bargaining agreement, was patently wrong. To punish the teams that didn't go along with the wrong, and to so strenuously defend the punishment as though it were right, is the height of arrogance.
Mara is wrong because, by effectively admitting collusion, he's giving the NFLPA ammunition for a new fight the league does not want. The union had to drop all pending litigation against the league as part of the Brady settlement last year when the lockout ended. That included the collusion charges they filed against the league for the suspicions they had about this kind of 2010 activity. Mara's admission could well qualify as new evidence that could allow the union to file new charges. And because the NFLPA is named in the Redskins' and Cowboys' complaint, it has the option of obtaining discovery on collusion should it wish to pursue action against the league. The union is upset that the league backed it into a corner here, effectively forcing it to agree to the penalties against the Cowboys and Redskins under the threat of a reduction in this year's salary cap, and would love an opening from which to attack on this.
Mara is wrong because he's the chairman of the NFL Management Council, which is the group that imposed these penalties, and he's the owner of a team that plays the Cowboys and Redskins twice each year and competes with them for the same division title. That's not to say Mara did this on purpose to get one over on two division rivals. But one of the first things we're taught in any journalism class is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety -- to steer clear of any activity that could ever allow anyone to accuse us of engaging in a conflict of interest. That is clearly not a concern Mara has in this case, but he should. There's a chance he should have recused himself from this whole thing, and even if he hadn't, he's not doing himself or his excellent reputation any favors by being the aggressive face of the penalties.
What's interesting here is that, when these penalties came down, a lot of people assumed it was the teams at the other end of the spending spectrum who were upset with what the Cowboys and Redskins had done -- traditionally low-spending teams like the Buccaneers and the Jaguars and the Chiefs and the Bills. But what seems clear now is that Mara, the owner of the Giants, was one of the driving forces behind holding the Redskins' and Cowboys' feet to the fire over an issue the league office likely wouldn't have pursued if not for pressure from owners. It makes Mara look petty and small and vindictive, and those aren't words usually associated with him. It makes no sense to me that he's gone to such great lengths to allow people to apply them to him now.