As our resident legal expert, Dawn Macelli, has already covered, an appeals court has sent the NFLPA collusion lawsuit against the NFL back to the court of Judge David Doty and allowed it to proceed. However, it is generally believed that the NFLPA has very little chance of winning this case and getting any real damages awarded, because the association seemed quite willing to turn a blind eye when it agreed in 2012 to not seek damages for collusion in exchange for a higher salary cap.
Even if the NFLPA proves that collusion occurred in the uncapped year of 2010 (and the cap penalties imposed in 2012 on Dallas and Washington suggest that it did), the settlement will not be set aside lightly.
"[T]he [NFLPA] bears a heavy burden in attempting to convince the district court that the Dismissal was fraudulently procured," the appeals court explained. "We hold only that the [NFLPA] should be given the opportunity to meet this burden," which is satisfied "in only the most exceptional of cases."
The Dallas Cowboys and the Washington NFL franchise will not see any return of the cap space they were penalized. Really, all that the players union has gained is a right to proceed with discovery in the case to attempt to show that collusion did happen, and that the league got their agreement to what happened by fraud or deception. Even if the discovery does show clear evidence of collusion, the union will probably be told in the end that they had enough knowledge to know this was a crooked and unfair deal that they willingly agreed to because, money.
So why even bother at this stage?
It's all about 2020. That is when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement ends. The NFLPA wants to get as much information as it can to go into the negotiations for the next CBA with clear proof that the NFL negotiated the last one dishonestly and unethically, with the intent of using the leverage that gets them in the court of public opinion to squeeze the league and the owners comprising it for every nickel they can get.
The last CBA was, by and large, a major win for the owners. They got the all-important rookie pay scale they wanted, and came out ahead in almost every other significant aspect. The NFLPA was frankly outmaneuvered by the league. After the dust began to settle, and the full extent of what had gone on during the supposed "uncapped" 2010 season became clear, the player's union started to realize why they had been feeling the urge to squeal like a pig. The cap penalties orchestrated by John Mara and Roger Goodell were the obvious proof that the NFL was not going to allow a truly uncapped year, and would do whatever it could to make sure that the teams would toe the line in any future seasons not governed by a CBA and salary cap. It was a strategically foolish move by the league, since it was an admission that collusion has occurred and that the league was punishing those teams who most strongly resisted it. Had Mara and Goodell not decided to go after Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder for defying them and obeying US labor laws, there would have been no reason for the NFLPA to dig into this. Instead, the NFL not only committed the illegal acts, it declared publicly that it had committed said acts, and told everyone what the evidence was of the acts and where to look for it, then defied the NFLPA to do anything about it.
The league had pretty much gotten away with it until this ruling. Now, the NFLPA is at least hoping to get the evidence out in the open and on the record. The NFL will do whatever it can to stop the whole process because it does not want the full extent of how they violated labor law laid out in public. This is hardly a done deal because of the way the NFL will still fight this, but now the door has been opened. To keep the discovery from happening, the NFL basically has to make the same argument that the appeals court threw out, that there is just no basis for the claim that fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct was involved in getting the union to agree to the new CBA and to dismiss the union's previous charges of collusion. It may not be that easy for the NFL this time, because the conclusion the appeals court came to was that you cannot state there is no basis for the charges without at least holding discovery so the union can then present what they find to the judge.
Despite the fact that the union will most likely fail to win the case even with the discovery and whatever they uncover, just getting that information in their hands is the real goal here. A large part of any CBA negotiation is winning the public relations battle. It is hard for either billionaire owners or millionaire players to come across as sympathetic, but when you can't polish your own image, it is just as effective to smear the other side. The picture of Goodell, apparently with Mara heading the effort, ordering the teams to engage in illegal practices is not a good one for the NFL. And the union really wants to have that in their arsenal for negotiating the next CBA.
This is not likely to be resolved any time soon. The league is going to fight as hard as they can to avoid this. They may get Judge Doty to throw it all out again.
But up until today, everyone assumed this was a dead issue. There are never any guarantees when you go into court, and that is where this issue is again. Hubris has come back to bite the league, at least for now.