NFL owners can't have it both ways

So this story is in the news again. Remember the one about how the league docked the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins salary-cap money in the 2012 and 2013 offseasons because the other owners didn't like the way Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder structured contracts during the supposedly uncapped 2010 season?

Yeah, it's back. While it's difficult to imagine it advancing very far, there remains a chance it could get embarrassing for the league's owners before it's all said and done. They're wrong on this and always have been. Either there were secret spending rules in place in 2010 despite the lack of a salary cap, or the Cowboys and the Redskins didn't break any rules. One of those things, by definition, has to be true. Although the NFL Players Association likely can't win a court case on this, it might have a chance to expose the owners as sneaky hypocrites. Which might, in their eyes, be worth the effort.

This had appeared to be a settled issue. Jones and Snyder did some grumbling but ultimately realized they were basically complicit in the same shady behavior as the owners who were mad at them for doing it wrong. And even though the NFLPA put its hand up and made the point that agreeing to regulate spending in a year without a salary cap sure does sound a lot like collusion, U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled that the union had given up its right to pursue damages as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

Now, though, the story is back, as the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed part of Doty's ruling last week. That decision could allow the union to pursue discovery in the case -- meaning union leadership and counsel could be allowed to interview Jones, Snyder and other owners about what the arrangement was back in 2010. If that happens, the owners are going to look pretty bad. Because the 2010 arrangement seems to be the textbook definition of collusion.

To be clear: No, I do not believe the Cowboys and Redskins can expect any form of restitution for the lost salary-cap space. (Washington and Dallas were penalized $36 million and $10 million against the salary cap, respectively.) That money is gone forever and isn't coming back. Nor do I believe the NFLPA can win a collusion case the way Major League Baseball players did in the 1980s. The NFL's players agreed to several stipulations in the current CBA that limit their rights to litigation on issues that predate it. Also, the CBA contains (as the previous one did) a carefully worded collusion clause that narrowly defines collusive behavior for the league's purposes. It's Article 17, on page 119, if you want to read it. But I don't see anything there that would apply to a case like this.

Basically, while you know it was collusion, and I know it was collusion, and in any other business it would be collusion, what happened here doesn't fall into any of the very specific, collectively bargained, agreed-upon definitions of collusion in the NFL's work agreement with its players.

What the union believes the owners did in 2010 was agree to spending rules and restrictions in an uncapped season because (a) they knew they were going to lock out the players in 2011, (b) they knew they weren't going to keep them locked out forever, and (c) they wanted to make sure their attempt at union-busting didn't hurt the competitive balance of the league once they dropped the power play and began negotiating honestly again. It likely wouldn't take much "discovery" to learn all that. Some owners have admitted as much publicly.

But short of an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its right to make its own rules, nobody is getting paid over this. The best the union can hope for is to be allowed to pursue and make its case -- to ask owners public questions about what their intent was in 2010, and to force them to defend behavior the wider world will find indefensible. Petty? Maybe. But when you're accustomed to getting your rear ends kicked in the court of public opinion, it's reasonable to jump at the chance for a bit of table-turning.

Nobody looks good here. The Cowboys and Redskins were trying to get over on their fellow owners, who were trying to get over on the union, which then later agreed to the sanctions against the Cowboys and Redskins in exchange for a higher salary cap than the owners were initially offering in 2012. Ugly all around.

But after the owners got what they wanted out of the whole arrangement, they acted out of arrogance in publicly punishing Jones and Snyder. And Giants owner John Mara, who chaired the committee in charge of imposing the penalties, made a regrettable PR decision when he angrily proclaimed that the Cowboys and Redskins were "lucky they didn't lose draft picks" over the whole thing. If the punishment for that arrogance is more inconvenience and embarrassment than the NFL's owners are accustomed to, then I say it's well-deserved.