Just before NFL free agency began this week, the league penalized the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins against the salary cap for taking advantage of the uncapped year in 2010. It makes no sense, but it's not surprising.
Here's the thing: Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder are two of the most indefensible human beings on earth. They are reptiles in thousand dollar suits, they've spent the better part of the past decade behaving like children or tyrants, and usually some combination therein. Most of all, though, Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder are human proof that life is unfair.
So, it would take something REALLY unfair to have any of us defending Jones and Snyder on the point of fairness. If there's cosmic injustice out there, nobody's earned it more than those two. But Roger Goodell has a special talent for dwarfing even the biggest villains, so here we are.
NFL free agency began this week, but there's a twist with the Redskins and Cowboys. On Monday, the league hit them with salary cap penalties that'll apply over the next two years--$36 million for the Redskins, and $10 million for the Cowboys. The penalties come in response to the Cowboys and Redskins exploiting the NFL's salary structure in 2010 -- when the final year of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement allowed for a year without a salary cap. Both teams front-loaded contracts, took advantage of the loophole, and spent more than anyone in the NFL.
Back then, the Redskins led the NFL with $178 million in salary, with Cowboys checking in at $168 million. The next closest team was New Orleans at $145 million. This shouldn't be surprising. Given the brief window of opportunity, two of the league's richest teams took advantage.
Fast-forward two years, though: Now we find out that the NFL warned teams repeatedly against doing that, and the teams who ignored the warning are being punished in spectacular fashion.
There are a few factors to consider here.
A "warning" isn't a rule. If an uncapped year was written into the CBA -- and it totally, completely was -- a league shouldn't be able to retroactively enact some unwritten rules to keep things under control. In this scenario, Roger Goodell is like the off-duty lifeguard telling teams not to swim in the ocean.
"Is there a law?" teams might ask.
"Then who are you to tell us what we can't do?"
[cut to disapproving Roger Goodell, furiously blowing his whistle]
If there's a law later on, you can't go back and punish people who broke a law that didn't exist. This is basic common sense, and also a pretty basic legal principle. It doesn't apply to the NFL here because the NFL operates as one private business, not a marketplace. That leads to the most important point here.
A step past collusion. The salary cap is by definition a socialist invention. It's a bunch of billionaires colluding to artificially control market prices for the best players by placing limits on what any given team can invest in its roster. They get away with it because the NFL treats itself as one business, not 32 separate business competing with one another. We know this, and the stiff salary cap has worked wonders in making the NFL the most popular sport in America, so it's hard to complain too much. But this week's move from the NFL takes it a step further.
It's one thing to force the richest, most proactive teams to abide by a salary cap that all 32 teams and the players union agreed to. In 2010, the NFL was apparently telling teams to ignore the rules they'd all agreed upon in the CBA or risk facing punishment from the NFL.
Two years later, that threat's been proven real, as owners rallied around Goodell to penalize the Cowboys and Redskins, teams who played by the rules as they were originally written. Teams who had the gall to spend whatever they could to gain a leg up in the market. The penalties amount to collusion on top of collusion, punishing the few teams who dared abide by the rules they'd all agreed upon. It reminds me of an economist's essay on NFL business from this past summer:
...the NFL isn’t capitalist in any traditional sense. ... Its goal is not to embrace competition but to tame it, making the owners’ businesses less risky and more profitable. Unions are often attacked for trying to interfere with the natural workings of the market, but in the case of football it’s the owners, not the union, who are the real opponents of the free market. They have created a socialist paradise for themselves that happens to bring with it capitalist-size profits.
Redskins and Cowboys fans will complain about the penalties, but nobody should be too surprised. This is the NFL we have now, where 32 teams feed off an evenly divided pie served by Roger Goodell. When an owner or player oversteps his bounds, Goodell has the power to do pretty much whatever he wants without fear of retribution. Any team's seat at the NFL table is too valuable to risk with rebellion, and the other owners will always side with the hand that feeds them.
It all happens in the name of "competitive balance", but that's just a clever way to say, "maintaining the status quo." The NFL world is a place where the information's carefully controlled through press releases and submissive media. Where audiences are waterboarded patriotic propaganda at every turn. Where the power structure's dominated by owners who long ago sold their soul to the system in exchange for guaranteed profits each year -- and that system has a dictator at the top, the one who makes up the rules as he goes along. This week is just the latest proof, but with The Ginger Hammer's tenure, you can count on a reminder every few months. America's new pastime operates more like Russia.
Sure, guys like Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder might be the slimy benefactors that capitalism sometimes leaves us with. But the NFL's selective, paranoid justice is a good reminder of what the alternative looks like.