“Damn, I wish they hadn’t guaranteed the whole contract,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told reporters at the NFL league meetings last March. “I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”
Owners like Bisciotti feared that Watson’s deal would set a precedent, and that the next quarterbacks up for new contracts would push for fully guaranteed deals as well. But the starting quarterbacks up next, Las Vegas’ Derek Carr (April), Arizona’s Kyler Murray (July) and Denver’s Russell Wilson (September) didn’t get it done in their deals. And most notably, Lamar Jackson elected to play out the final year of his contract with the Ravens, because he couldn’t get what Watson got.
And now, the NFLPA is alleging collusion among owners as the reason for it.
Per a memo dated Oct. 20, 2022, sent from the league’s general counsel Jeff Pash to club owners, presidents, general managers and counsel, the NFLPA filed a claim alleging that teams and the league have colluded to prevent clubs from offering players fully guaranteed contracts. One club executive sent the memo to The Athletic and another executive with a different team confirmed that he had also received the same memo.
The NFLPA declined to comment.
The league memo quotes from the NFLPA’s pleading, which The Athletic did not view, and says the NFLPA argues that “(t)he expectation was that fully-guaranteed contracts would now become the competition driven norm for the top players in the League, including quarterbacks, negotiating new contracts.”
The memo says that the NFLPA alleges that “before, during and after” the Aug. 9 ownership meeting in Minneapolis, when the owners met to approve the Denver Broncos sale, “NFL owners and/or League executives discussed not agreeing to any additional player contracts with fully-guaranteed salaries.”
“They don’t need to collude to do that,” the first executive told The Athletic on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “The Browns are the only team willing to do that. Everybody else knows that it was a terrible contract.”
“Go back to when Minnesota did that terrible deal with (Kirk) Cousins, people thought that would be the norm. And then it didn’t happen again until Deshaun. I’m not going to say it is never going to be the norm, and every year there is a little more guaranteed in contracts, but that’s the one thing that owners have always been adamant about. They do not want fully guaranteed contracts like baseball and basketball have.”
The CBA doesn’t mandate or prevent fully guaranteed contracts. Each team can decide for itself how to handle those types of deals, and the Browns acquiesced to the request of Watson’s camp for a fully guaranteed contract because they knew it was the only way they would get the quarterback to come to Cleveland. Watson had the leverage, so if he didn’t get what he wanted from the Browns he’d pick the Saints, Falcons or Panthers.
The NFL’s memo says the NFLPA asked the arbitrator to award damages and permit “certain quarterbacks who have been adversely affected by the collusive agreement to terminate their current player contracts.”
“Certain quarterbacks” means those who have already signed, like Wilson and Murray (Wilson’s agent Mark Rodgers declined to comment, as did Murray’s agent Erik Burkhardt) and those who haven’t signed, like Jackson.
“This is all in response to Lamar Jackson,” a veteran NFL agent told The Athletic. “They are trying to say that Watson did his and Lamar was trying to get it and he couldn’t.”
Jackson does not have an NFLPA-certified agent. He represents himself, and his mother, Felicia Jones, is his manager. This agent hypothesized that if the NFLPA were to win this grievance, which he highly doubts it will, the union would ask for the Ravens to not be able to apply the franchise tag on Jackson. That way, he could become an unrestricted free agent as part of the damages. “There’s no precedent for that,” the veteran NFL agent said. “Not in football.”
The NFLPA alleges that the clubs and the league have violated Article 17 of the CBA, the anti-collusion section, which prohibits clubs and its employees from entering into an agreement “express or implied” with the league or another club and its employees concerning the terms and conditions offered to a player in a player contract.
In an interview with Pro Football Talk on Oct. 18, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told Mike Florio that the union “affectionately” refers to NFL owners’ meetings as “collusion meetings.”
Florio asked Smith about Bisciotti’s public comments about the Browns fully guaranteeing Watson’s contract, and whether there is anything that could be done to push back on the perception that the owners are colluding.
“Sometimes your best evidence comes from people who make comments that look like they are careless but are actually rooted in something factual,” Smith told Florio. “I am being a little bit cagey, but anytime we see what has been occurring in the markets and we hear comments that validate those concerns, we have never shied away from exercising both our legal rights and our collective bargaining rights to protect our players and people shouldn’t be surprised if something happens in the near future.”
In that answer, Smith hinted strongly that the NFLPA would take action. The union has the burden to prove collusion, and the veteran agent said it would need a smoking gun, like an audio recording of a meeting with individual owners going around the room saying the same thing about not doing fully guaranteed contracts. “I doubt it exists,” he said.
The last time the NFL faced a collusion claim was 2017, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick hired an outside attorney to allege that NFL owners had kept him out of a job in the league. Safety Eric Reid filed another collusion claim in 2018, using the same lawyer. They both ended up settling with the NFL in 2019.
The NFL’s memo says that the NFLPA’s pleading “fails to explain the basis of their alleged expectation” and that “we are aware of no evidence supporting these collusion claims, which we will vigorously oppose.”
The full memo:
(Top photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)