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Collusion suspicions arise regarding tender-reduction letters

With the NFL Players Association making a bold move against the league in conjunction with the “lockout insurance” provision in the most recent wave of broadcast-rights deals, a report from Albert Breer of the Boston Globe hints at an eventual attack regarding a potentially more serious violation.

In an item regarding the options currently facing Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who has received a letter from the team indicating that his restricted free agency tender will plunge from $3.268 million to $1.54 million if he doesn’t sign it by Tuesday, Breer states that “the train of thought is that they are a result of a sort of groupthink
on the part of the clubs to strengthen their negotiating positions.”

In other words, collusion.

Given the plain language of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the mere creation of the letters suggests that the league office has made some sort of communication regarding the proper protocol. Indeed, nothing in Article XIX, Section (h)(i)(i) requires teams to communicate in advance an intention to reduce the tender offer from the initial value to 110 percent of the player’s 2009 base salary. Says the CBA on this point: “If the player’s Qualifying Offer is greater than 110% of the player’s Paragraph 5 salary (with all other terms of his prior year contract carried forward unchanged), the Club may withdraw the Qualifying Offer on June 15 and retain its rights . . ., so long as the Club immediately tenders the player a one year Player Contract of at least 110% of this Paragraph 5 Salary (with all other terms of his prior year contract carried forward unchanged).”

Thus, everyone already is on notice regarding the rules that apply, and it would make no more sense to send a written warning of a coming reduction in a tender offer than it would to send a written warning in February that a tender will be applied in the first place.

So from where, if anywhere, does the obligation to send the warning letter come? Possibly, it’s contained in a separate internal NFL operations manual, potentially as a suggested device for ensuring that the player can’t later claim that he had no clue that the number could drop (which could happen if his agent doesn’t his ass from a loophole in the CBA). It also could be a P.R. ploy, bracing the media and the fans for what otherwise could be viewed as a jarring act of disrespect against a valued player.

Or it could be aimed at squeezing the players by prompting as many voices in the media as possible to declare how utterly stupid it would be to not sign the tender before June 15. (Count us among those voices.)

If the rule regarding the sending of a warning letter appears nowhere within the league’s various procedures and manuals, then the mass sending of such missives would seem to be the result of coordinated action. Whether that amounts to collusion in the forbidden sense remains to be seen. As time passes, however, we suspect that the union eventually will drop a comprehensive collusion bomb on the league, pointing to every shred of evidence that arguably supports the idea that the teams have agreed to tighten the belts in 2010, in the hopes of building up the league’s lockout fund, and in turn minimizing the money that players will have if/when the work goes away in 2011.