By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 12:34 AM
The NFL Players Association is preparing a possible collusion case accusing teams of improperly conspiring to restrict players' salaries last offseason, people familiar with the preparation of the case said Friday.
The case potentially will be filed within the next month, said one individual, who like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the union has made no announcement about its intentions.
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players' union prohibits a team from entering "into any agreement, express or implied" with another team "to restrict or limit" contract negotiations with players or players' salaries.
George Atallah, the union's assistant executive director of external affairs, said a possible collusion case is being researched but declined to comment on the details.
"The players continue to gather evidence on possible collusion," Atallah said Friday.
An NFL spokesman declined to comment.
The case would be filed with Stephen B. Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who serves as the NFL's special master, putting him in charge of resolving disputes between the league and union arising from their labor agreement. Any ruling by Burbank could be appealed to Minneapolis-based U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who oversees the sport's labor deal.
The filing would come with the owners and union negotiating a potential extension of their labor agreement, which expires after this season. DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, and players have said they expect the owners to lock out the players before the 2011 season. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners have said their goal is to agree to a new labor deal with the players that addresses what they call flaws in the sport's current economic system.
The owners voted in May 2008 to end the labor deal, which was last extended in 2006, two years early. This season is being played without a salary cap.
It's not immediately clear how many teams would be accused of collusion by the union's case, or how many players would be cited as being harmed financially.
According to one person, the union's collusion case would cite decreased spending by teams on free agent players and a lack of activity on the restricted free agent market last offseason.
The union's prospective collusion case also could cite trades between the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams and public comments made by Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, according to one individual.
The case would question, this person said, whether the Redskins and Rams made two trades before the season to avoid releasing rookies that they'd drafted and circumvent a rule requiring a team to allocate 85 percent of the $320,000 rookie minimum salary to other rookies on its roster if it releases a drafted rookie.
According to multiple reports, Lewis said in a conference call this week with Tampa-area reporters that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers overpaid rookie wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe when they signed Briscoe to their practice squad.
Briscoe was a sixth-round draft choice by the Bengals who was released before the season. According to the reports, the Bengals wanted to re-sign Briscoe to their practice squad but he signed instead with the Buccaneers to be on their practice squad but with the minimum salary for players on the 53-man roster, far more than he would have made on Cincinnati's practice squad.
Lewis said on this week's conference call, according to a written account of his comments on ESPN's Web site: "When you overpay a guy on the practice squad, you create a problem for teams. I don't know that teams want to set that precedent and they did with Dez.
"That's not a great precedent for teams to set as we try to keep the NFL and doing the things we're trying to do as a league. It's still a league of 32 teams and things are put together a certain way."