The Cowboys and Redskins are usually on opposing sides.

The rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins has been well-documented. However, this time they are playing for the same team. The Cowboys and Redskins were both penalized by the NFL in mid-March for overloading contracts in the 2010 uncapped season. (Notice the word “uncapped.”) The Redskins were given a $36 million salary cap reduction to be spread out over two years, while the Cowboys received a $10 million salary cap reduction. Needless to say, they are not happy about it and are teaming up to file a case with an arbitrator challenging the salary cap reductions.

While the NFL’s decision has raised the ire of many fans across the NFL, it also invokes complicated legal questions. First, the two teams did not actually violate any salary cap rules because  2010 was an uncapped season, meaning they could spend as much money as they desired.  As Peter Schaffer, an attorney and NFL agent, notes in the Washington Post, “If you have an uncapped year, you can’t have cap penalties…The definition of uncapped is no cap.” The NFL claims that the Redskins and Cowboys gained an unfair competitive advantage by dumping salary in an uncapped season. However, others see the teams’ actions as clever cap maneuvering. Not surprisingly, the cap penalty was approved by the other NFL owners. Some suggest that the Redskins and Cowboys were warned not to do anything during the uncapped season to gain a competitive advantage in future seasons. Schaffer believes this may be an indication that the owners improperly colluded. According to Schaffer, the salary cap is a “per-se violation of antitrust laws” unless labor agrees to it. Therefore, a secret agreement between the owners and the NFL to restrict players’ salaries without the NFLPA’s consent could be problematic. However, this concern is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the NFLPA agreed to the salary cap reductions.

While collusion is one legal argument the Redskins and Cowboys are certain to make, they will also likely heavily rely on the fact that the NFL actually approved all of the contracts now in dispute, leaving the impression that the NFL is making up rules as they go. I would not want to be the lawyer arguing in front of the arbitrator that the Cowboys and Redskins deserved to be penalized for entering into contracts that my client approved.

While Cowboys’ and Redskins’ fans are fuming over their teams being penalized for overloading contracts that were approved by the NFL during an uncapped season, the NFL decided to throw fuel on the fire. First, the NFL announced its decision right before the start of free agency, dramatically altering the teams’ plans for free agency. Second, the salary cap taken from the Cowboys and Redskins was redistributed to the other NFL teams. Overall, as one ESPN blogger writes, the NFL should be ashamed of itself.

- R.L. Florance

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10 Responses to Cowboys and Indians: An Unlikely Alliance

  1. Tracy Hancock says:

    I agree with Mike that the damage is already done. That being said, I do think that the NFL should be ashamed. If a season was uncapped, there should not be cap penalties.

    When the news of this first broke, there was a lot of talk about an unwritten salary cap that the owners were warned about. In other words, the owners were told to resist the temptation of taking advantage of the no-cap season. I think it was wrong of the league to do this. However, if the other 30 teams heeded this warning, it’s understandable why those teams would be frustrated with the 2 teams that didn’t. While some teams may not have the funds to take advantage of the “no-cap” season, presumably, the Cowboys and Redskins weren’t the only 2 teams that thought of this. The others just heeded the commissioner’s warning.

    • Will P. says:

      Yeah, on the one hand I can see why other teams woudl be frustrated if there were some unspoken rules or agreements about caps, but the NFL’s approval and then decision to backtrack just boggles my mind.

  2. Mike Ritter says:

    It seems to me that it might not matter whether the teams are able to fight this, the damage is already done. This was handled in a way that directly interfered with how the teams dealt with free agency. Now that most of the top free agents have been signed, it doesn’t matter if the Cowboys and Redskins are are able to avoid the penalties, they can’t go back and sign the people they might have targeted without the penalties. This is especially true for the Redskins, who traditionally make a huge splash at the beginning of the free agency period (e.g., Albert Haynesworth).

  3. Charles Michels says:

    I really don’t think the Cowboys or Redskins have any standing on this one. The other 30 teams approved. The commissioner approved. The NFLPA approved.

    As I posted in the Saints’ Bounty post, it’s hard to see how the Cowboys and Redskins can fight this. In the Saints’ context, it will be the NFL waiting until after the draft to announce the suspensions of current (and former) Saints players for bounty violations. That will put the Saints at a competitive disadvantage, just like these salary cap hits put the Redskins and Cowboys at a competitive disadvantage.

    But again, competitive disadvantage doesn’t seem to be a strong legal argument in this context.

  4. Andrew Harline says:

    Both teams should just accept the penalty, instead of fighting it, so that they each have an excuse for their upcoming sure-to-be-a-failure seasons.

    Assuming the penalty stands, it will be interesting to see if the salary cap reduction over the next two seasons will effect the Redskins’ second draft pick’s contract. The CBA has slotted salaries depending on where you go in the draft, but with a salary cap penalty during the first two years, I wonder if RGIII’s contract will have more back-loaded provisions. Not good for him if he fails to perform.

  5. Jeremy Gove says:

    I am completely unsurprised by what the NFL did here. I think Roger Goodell has acted with unparalleled hubris in his capacity as league commissioner and this is another example of it. His formula for running the league seems to be giving harsh punishments to things he sees as violations in order address deeper issues (see New Orleans Saints as a proxy for general player health). This just seems to me to be his attempt to address league competitive advantage by chastising the Cowboys and the Redskins for having the money to spend while the Jaguars and Browns are forever mired in sub-mediocrity with no expendable capital.

  6. Alex Payne says:

    Had this occurred with the Bucs or Jags or some other low-spending team, I don’t think this issue would’ve arisen. The problem for the other 30 NFL owners is that the Skins and Cowboys dumped in order to spend, which really isn’t a competitive advantage – especially if you look at the on-field results.

  7. R.L. says:

    That is what shocked me most about this case, that the NFL would have the gall to penalize teams for contracts that the NFL itself had previously approved. I don’t know how the NFL’s attorney will respond in arbitration when the Cowboys and Redskins make this point.

  8. R. Sawyer says:

    I agree the attorney for the NFL is going to have a tough job given the NFL’s approval of the contracts in question. I think the best alternative to litigation is for the NFL to create a rule prohibiting the dumping of salary during uncapped seasons. However, the rule should not apply retroactively. Even as an Eagles fan, I do not see how the league can put forth an antitrust claim against the Redskins and Cowboys when there was explicit approval for the contracts. The NFL should reverse the levied penalties and focus on preventing this situation in the future.

  9. Paul says:

    Very interesting. I’m with you in that I’d hate to be the attorney arguing the NFL’s case before the arbitrator. The other thirty NFL teams should be embarrassed that they weren’t smart enough to take advantage of the situation the way that the Cowboys and Redskins were.

    In this case, it’s definitely sports, rather than politics that’s making strange bedfellows and I still can’t believe I’m siding with Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder…