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League, union disagree on collusion


At a time when the NFL and the NFL Players Association don’t agree on much, they definitely don’t agree on whether teams are colluding in free agency.

Earlier today, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent an email to all agents regarding the current free agent market and the apparent claims from some teams that salary-cap issues are restricting spending. Since then, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah has published the current cap numbers for every team; that’s something the union rarely if ever has done.

Smith’s email, a copy of which PFT has obtained, concludes with this message to agents: “Finally, we have heard reports of a concern that teams are working in concert to ‘peg’, ‘rig’ or ‘set’ market prices on player contracts. If you believe or have information that the teams have been colluding during this free agency period, you have a responsibility as an agent of the NFLPA to come forward and share that information with us.”

While the NFLPA has yet to formally accuse the league or its teams of collusion, the union undoubtedly is looking for any evidence to support a conclusion that teams have expressly or implicitly reached agreements as to the offers that will be made to players -- which by definition is collusion.

Predictably, the NFL contends that no collusion has occurred. “Player signings in 2013 have been characterized by robust spending and intense competition,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told NFL Network’s Albert Breer. “Anyone seeing collusion in this market is seeing ghosts.”

While we’re not able to conclude at this point that collusion has occurred, the market this year hardly has been “robust,” and the competition for players definitely hasn’t been “intense.” The initial spending spree to open the market was limited, with a smaller-than-usual handful of players signing big-money deals. Apart from Joe Flacco’s record contract that resulted directly from the Ravens’ reluctance to use either level of the franchise tag, no high-water marks were set this year.

Collusion doesn’t come only from agreements to “peg” or “rig” or “set” market prices. It also comes from seemingly innocuous efforts to compare notes as to how other teams value a given position in light of a slowly-growing salary cap. While it’s impossible to prove that such communications occurred unless and until a disgruntled team employee blows the whistle (or until the league tries to punish teams that didn’t comply with the unwritten agreement by taking away salary-cap money after the fact), there’s nothing wrong with the union or anyone else looking at the circumstantial evidence and becoming suspicious.

The NFL would prefer that neither the media nor the union investigate the possibility of collusion, and one potentially effective strategy would be the issuance of dismissive statements vouching for the absence of collusion and suggesting that anyone who suspects otherwise is stupid or delusional or both.

It’s entirely possibly that I’m both stupid and delusional, but there’s something about the current free-agency market that doesn’t smell right. And when that happens, the right thing to do is follow one’s nose to wherever the odor leads.