Mixed views on strength of Redskins’ legal position in salary cap case

Mike Shanahan and the Redskins shift their focus to the draft. (Toni Sandys / The Washington Post)

Coach Mike Shanahan and Redskins are facing the prospect of having to absorb the second half of their $36 million salary cap penalty (Toni Sandys / The Washington Post)

There were mixed views around the NFL on Tuesday about the strength of the Redskins’ legal position if the team chooses to contest the remaining portion of its salary cap penalty in court.

Many people familiar with the case have said for months that the Redskins would have little or no chance of recouping any of their lost salary cap space through a legal challenge.

But several people said this week that the team may have some strong arguments to make. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the team’s strategy, they said Redskins officials told them the team is considering whether to seek an injunction that would halt the scheduled opening of the NFL free agent market March 12, or threatening to do that in a bid to bolster its negotiating strength in settlement talks.

One person familiar with the case said he thinks the team could use the NFL’s position in a recently dismissed collusion lawsuit brought by the players’ union against the league.

The league argued in the collusion case that the union had waived its right to bring such a collusion complaint. U.S. District Court Judge David Doty agreed, twice ruling that the collusion case could not move forward.

The person with knowledge of the salary cap case said the Redskins could argue that if the union had waived its right to bring a complaint based on conduct that occurred before pro football’s 2011 labor agreement, the league and union also should be prohibited from taking action against a team for conduct prior to the labor deal.

“Maybe there is something to Doty’s ruling that makes the issuance of discipline [against the Redskins] inappropriate,” the person said. “If the [league and union] released all claims in the CBA, then how could there be a basis to discipline teams for a claim that was released?”

The league, with the union’s consent, last year reduced the Redskins’ salary cap by $36 million over two years as a penalty for the way the team structured players’ contracts in 2010, when there was no salary cap. The NFL ruled that the Redskins attempted to gain an improper competitive advantage in future years by loading salaries into the uncapped season.

The Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, who were given a cap reduction of $10 million over two years for similar actions, challenged the reductions in an arbitration case last year. But arbitrator Stephen Burbank dismissed the case last May, ruling that the teams could not challenge the reductions because the league and the union had agreed to them.

Two other people who were briefed on the Redskins’ plans also said they believe the Redskins could make a good case in court that they should be granted an injunction to halt free agency because they would suffer irreparable harm otherwise.

ESPN reported Tuesday that the Cowboys would not join the Redskins in any legal action.

Another person who said he had been told about the Redskins’ approach said the team’s best bet is to use the threat of going to court to persuade the league to give back a portion of the lost salary cap space. The Redskins are scheduled to absorb the remaining $18 million of the salary cap reduction this year.

“I think it’s all about trying to bluff their way into a deal to get some of it back,” that person said.

But others familiar with the case continued to express the view that the league will stand its ground. The defeats by the union in court and the Redskins and Cowboys in arbitration demonstrate that there is little chance of success, several people said.

“Why don’t they just accept it and move on?” one asked.

According to another person, the league would be unlikely to budge in negotiations with the Redskins. That person pointed out that the salary cap reductions were approved last year by the union and the owners of the other teams. Both groups, that person said, likely would have to approve any give-back of salary cap space to the Redskins, an unlikely proposition.

The $46 million in salary cap reductions to the Redskins and Cowboys were redistributed to 28 of the other 30 NFL teams. The league found the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders to have used similar tactics but to a lesser degree. They received no salary cap reductions but did not benefit from the $46 million redistribution.

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