The players union claimed Wednesday that the NFL imposed a secret salary cap during the uncapped 2010 season that cost the players at least $1 billion US.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, which oversees the Reggie White settlement covering NFL labour matters. But the league says the union has no grounds for the action and is prohibited from filing it by the collective bargaining agreement.
The complaint claims 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.
Both teams lost a grievance against those reductions on Tuesday.
"When the rules are broken in a way that hurts the game, we have an obligation to act. We cannot stand by when we now know that the owners conspired to collude," union chief DeMaurice Smith said Wednesday.
In response to the reopening of the Reggie White lawsuit, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "There was no collusion. There was no agreement. These claims are totally unfounded."
A league statement said the collective bargaining agreement signed last August to end the 4 1/2-month lockout prohibited the filing of these claims, and that players' attorneys signed a separate agreement agreeing to the terms.
But NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler said that agreement was rejected by the court.
"The document they are referring to was not accepted by the district court in Minnesota," he said Wednesday. "It was rejected and the court entered an order which only dismissed claims under White that were pending."
The NFL also points to a clause in the latest labour contract in which the union gives up the right to sue over "collusion with respect to any League Year prior to 2011."
Thus, the NFL has considered the 2010 uncapped season a closed matter ever since the new labour deal was signed last summer. Clearly, the players do not, and now are seeking compensation for lost wages caused by collusion among the teams.
"Our union recently learned that there was a secret salary cap agreement in an uncapped year," NFL Players Association President Domonique Foxworth said. "The complaint today is our effort to fulfil our duty to every NFL player. They deserve to know, above all, the facts and the truth about this conspiracy."
The 2006 CBA included an uncapped 2010 season as the final year of the deal. It was thought that neither the league nor the union would want the potential chaos of a season with no salary cap, but that proved false as negotiations on a new contract stagnated.
Just over two months after that uncapped season, the league locked out the players in March 2011. The salary cap was reinstated in the new, 10-year CBA finalized last August.
But on March 12, just before free agency began, the Redskins and Cowboys had their salary caps reduced over the next two seasons. The NFLPA was involved in that process, with 28 other clubs getting a boost in their salary caps for 2012 and '13.
Oakland and New Orleans do not share in the redistributed salary cap space because they engaged in similar practices, but not to the degree of Washington and Dallas.
The union now believes Dallas and Washington were punished for exceeding a covert salary cap in 2010, not for undermining competitive balance, as the NFL has claimed.
"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."
The union says the league office approved contracts enabling the Redskins, Cowboys, Raiders, and Saints to exceed that "secret, collusive salary cap."
This is dangerous territory for any sport.
In baseball, the union filed collusion grievances following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons accusing management of conspiring against free agents. After arbitrators ruled in the union's favour, management agreed to a $280 million settlement. Among the players affected were Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Jack Clark and Lance Parrish.
A triple-damages provision was inserted into the sport's labour contract in 1990.
This case is not comparable to baseball's, according to Gary Roberts, dean at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
"With baseball players it was strictly a matter for arbitration," Roberts said, "where here the union is alleging a violation of the White class action. Procedurally and substantively the claims are not that similar.
"The union's problem is not in the merits of their argument, it's in the procedural part of it. They signed a CBA that said all litigations are settled. What they're saying now is that only applied to things that 'we were aware of. We only waived and settled all claims that we knew existed. We couldn't be asked to waive any claims that we did not know existed.' "