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NFLPA says it will pay Ochocinco’s fine if he wears No. 15

Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco wants to honor Chris Henry on Sunday by wearing his jersey. The NFL has said that Ochocinco won’t be permitted to wear Henry’s jersey. We’ve previously said that we support his efforts in this regard, even if it means that he’ll be fined by the league.

Now, George Atallah of the NFL Players Association has announced on his Twitter page that the union “will cover any fine levied on [Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco] . . . and match it with a gift to our Chris Henry memorial fund.”

The situation sets up a potential legal battle between the league and the NFLPA, with the union undoubtedly hoping to score P.R. points in advance of a potential 2011 lockout.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello previously has explained to us in relation to Saints running back Reggie Bush’s past intention to wear non-conforming cleats that no other entity may pay the fine imposed on a player for violating the league’s uniform rules. We’ve sent an e-mail to Aiello requesting confirmation that this policy still exists. (We assume it does.)

And if it does, the union could be treading on dangerous ground. Under the labor agreement, fines imposed by the league are collected directly from the player’s salary. So the union wouldn’t be paying the fine; it would be making a cash payment to Chad Ochocinco.

But since the union is a federally-regulated non-profit entity that must answer not only to the government but also to its members, a direct payment to a player who was fined for engaging in conduct that violates the unambiguous content of league rules might invite scrutiny from one or more federal agencies -- especially if neither NFLPA Executive Director De Smith nor the union’s Executive Committee possess the authority to make such payments directly to individual players.

So keep an eye on this one. We think the union is desperate to find a way to get the public on its side as 2011 approaches. The union possibly is hoping to provoke a showdown that could help in its quest to shine a negative light on the No Fun League.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are caught in the middle of this. The team has full control over the locker room and its contents, and the team can either refuse to give a player a certain jersey or instruct him not to leave the locker room in something other than his assigned uniform.

Likewise, it’s possible that the league would prohibit Ochocinco from entering the game wearing anything other than his own jersey.

The real question becomes whether the league intends to draw a line in the sand on this issue. If the league does, it might play directly into the union’s obvious P.R. goals.