'See no evil, hear no evil' NFL justice

May, 22, 2012
5/22/12
2:20
PM ET
I don't know. Maybe this is for the best.

The effort by the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins to recover a combined $46 million in salary-cap penalties won't even get off the ground. Stephen Burbank, the NFL's independent arbitrator, granted the league's request to dismiss the complaint. And the teams released a joint statement saying they would respect the decision, so that's that. The Redskins lost a total of $36 million and the Cowboys $10 million in cap room over the next two seasons, and they're just going to have to deal with it because it's what the other NFL owners think is fair and the arbitrator found their argument that the complaint not be heard to be a persuasive one.

There's no way that any sensible, thinking person who's not an NFL owner can honestly feel that the league acted justly in penalizing the Cowboys and the Redskins for spending their money and structuring their contracts the way they did during the uncapped 2010 season. But it doesn't matter, because the NFL plays by its own rules and no one else's, and that's the lesson for today.

But in the end, maybe it's for the best. Maybe Burbank is doing everyone a favor. There's no one on any side of this dispute who can feel good about the way they've conducted themselves. It's a badge of shame for the league and the union, and it's not even really a badge of honor for the two aggrieved parties. So maybe, even though it's not fair, Burbank is being nice by telling everyone to just stop.

This all started because NFL owners agreed, in secret, to limit spending in 2010 even though there was no cap -- to continue to structure contracts as though there were a cap, because the lockout they were about to impose was basically a thinly veiled attempt at union-busting. They knew all along they'd ultimately have a new agreement with a new cap and they didn't want anyone to have gamed the system to their advantage in the meantime. In the real world, we call this collusion -- all of the business owners in a given industry agreeing among themselves to impose restrictions on wages. But in the NFL, it's OK, because the collective bargaining agreement the owners have with the players spells out which types of collusion are allowed and which aren't.

The Redskins and Cowboys got in trouble because they didn't go along with this game, instead using the lack of a salary cap in 2010 to structure contracts in such a way as to spare themselves from salary-cap trouble in future years. The sense is that many, if not all, teams did this, and that the Redskins and Cowboys just did it to such an egregious extent that some of the other owners insisted they be punished. They'd been warned, after all, that anyone who failed to honor the secret agreement discussed in the last paragraph would be punished. Giants owner John Mara, the chairman of the management council, said at the owners meetings in March that the Cowboys and Redskins got off easy -- that they were lucky they didn't lose draft picks.

Which is baloney, of course, because you can't break rules when there aren't any. But let's not go too far in letting our hearts break for Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder, who weren't exactly acting on charitable impulses here. They didn't break with the rest of the owners because they felt the policy was unfair to players. They did it because they thought it would give them an advantage, and that they could get away with it.

And then there's the NFLPA, for which this is anything but a shining moment. The players' union, which should be fighting such collusive behavior, instead capitulated and agreed to the sanctions against the Redskins and Cowboys because the owners threatened to reduce this year's salary cap if they did not. The union believes that was the right decision for its membership, and in the end it may well have been. But it is not a decision of which the union can be proud, and the fact the NFLPA allowed itself to be outmaneuvered by the league on this matter likely contributed to Burbank's decision to dismiss the complaint. The league's argument was based, largely, on the fact the sanctions were agreed upon by the league and the union. And jeez, if those two agree on something, how can it not be OK? Right?

It's all just plain ridiculous, the whole thing, and it's probably for the best that it all goes away. Everybody associated with it should be ashamed of themselves (though, sadly, no one seems to be). And while it's unfair that only the Cowboys and Redskins suffer for the arrogance of a group of people who continue to play its paying customers for willing patsies, the truly sad part is that anyone in this situation gets to walk away feeling as though he was in the right.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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