Collusion claim the latest NFL-union feud

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By BARRY WILNER, Associated Press

The lockout was easier than all this.

In many ways, more peaceful, too.

Nine months after the NFL and the players' union agreed on an unprecedented 10-year labor deal that, at the time, had everyone from Roger Goodell to DeMaurice Smith smiling, the relationship between the sides couldn't be testier.

During this offseason alone, the union has filed grievances in the Saints bounties case and for drug-related suspensions for two Broncos. On Wednesday, it claimed all 32 teams colluded to impose a secret salary cap in the uncapped 2010 season.

Clearly, the end of the lockout has brought only a sporadic truce, with the latest union action the most contentious.

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, which oversees the Reggie White settlement covering NFL labor matters, and the NFL Players Association says it could amount to $1 billion in lost wages.

But the league says the union has no grounds for the action and is prohibited from filing it by the collective bargaining agreement.

In a short span, pro football has gone from toasting marshmallows over a campfire to trying to burn each other in court or arbitration chambers.

"Filing this lawsuit is a provocative act on the part of the union, in whose interest it seems to me would be to try and build good relationships with the league that it is working with," said Gary Roberts, dean at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. "I'm not sure why they're doing this. I guess they think they could collect a lot of damages and distribute them to the players, but it really is a provocative act, at a time shortly after a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, to sort of in-your-face the league. It's almost guaranteed to cause a rupture of the relationship."

Just one day before the collusion filing, Goodell spoke about that relationship.

"The reality is that is part of operating in a pretty complex world," the NFL commissioner said when asked about the difficulty of negotiation with the NFLPA. "You have to be open about the initiatives you want to undertake. You don't expect all parties to agree at any point in time, but you have to drive toward solutions. At some point, you have to make some decisions about what is best for the game.

"That is part of the dialogue and part of finding solutions. We have had to do that over the last year as well."

There's a difference now, it seems. Any level of trust that once existed between the sides, particularly when Paul Tagliabue was commissioner (until 2006) and Gene Upshaw ran the union (until his death in 2008), is gone.

Nothing provides a better example of the runaway distrust than Wednesday's comments from Jeffrey Kessler, the union's outside counsel and a key figure in the lockout negotiations. Kessler spoke on a conference call after the union filed its complaint about a "conspiracy" to set a $123 million salary cap for the 2010 season, when owners did not have the authority to do so. The Cowboys and Redskins have had their future salary caps lowered for overspending in 2010, Dallas by $10 million over two seasons, Washington by a whopping $36 million.

"The league expressed their view that they thought those teams had gotten a competitive advantage," Kessler said. "If we wanted other salary cap increases for the clubs (in 2012) ... the price for doing that was doing this salary cap reallocation.

"Had the union known about prior collusion, the union would never have agreed to these cap reallocations."

Kessler said the union relied on numbers and information the NFL provided and had "not a shred of evidence about this ... until March 12."

"The NFL never told us these were for cap violations. The exact opposite ..."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello responded with: "There was no collusion. There was no agreement. These claims are totally unfounded."

That issue will be decided in the courts, but the accusations and nasty tone evident seemingly every day is reminiscent of the lockout. With the exception that at least football fans knew where to focus their attention during the work stoppage? Now? No clue.

"It's a little unusual," said Gabe Feldman, a sports law professor at Tulane University. "We thought we had 10 years of labor peace and we now have to put labor peace in quotes. We are seeing an ever-increasing number of battles between both sides over every decision, major and not so major.

"'Part of it is both sides are trying to protect what they bargained for in the new agreement. Part of it is when you have an incredibly complex agreement that was negotiated under a very short and tense time frame, it's not a complete surprise that there will be some disputes of some of the language."

All these confrontations can't bode well for the remainder of the CBA, which expires in 2021. If Jerry Jones still is running the Cowboys then, he expects that he and the league will have been through many more disagreements with the union, both trivial and monumental.

"The leadership that is there now very much will get toe-to-toe with you on any matter," Jones said Tuesday at an owners meeting. "I don't think that anything that materially affects our game is lacking with the players' counsel."

Wonder what he thought the next day?

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