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Elfin: Timing Is Everything In The NFLPA’s Latest Grievance Against Its Old Foe

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Roger Goodell's NFL and DeMaurice Smith's NFLPA square up again. (Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Roger Goodell’s NFL and DeMaurice Smith’s NFLPA square up again. (Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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Just when you thought it was safe to look ahead to the Redskins’ 2012 season and the start of Robert Griffin III’s career as Washington’s quarterback, something happens to drag us back to the bad old days.

On Tuesday, Special Master Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law school professor and the current arbitrator of choice in NFL matters, upheld the salary cap penalties levied against the Redskins ($36 million over this year and next) and the Dallas Cowboys $10 million over this year and next) for allegedly front-loading player costs onto the uncapped year of 2010 in order to give them more room when the cap was restored.

Washington and Dallas had argued that they didn’t violate any league rules, but Burbank ruled that since the NFLPA and 27 of the other 29 clubs (Tampa Bay abstained) had signed off on the cap reductions, they were valid under the new collective bargaining agreement hammered out last year.

“We pursued our salary cap claim pursuant to the CBA and we respect and will abide by the arbitrator’s decision to dismiss,” the Redskins and Cowboys said in a joint statement issued after Burbank’s ruling. “We will continue to focus on our football teams and the 2012 season.”

But yesterday, the NFLPA announced that it has taken the NFL to federal court in Minnesota on charges of collusion. The NFLPA alleges that the NFL imposed a “secret” $123 million salary cap during the uncapped 2010 year.

“When the rules are broken in a way that hurts the game, we have an obligation to act,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. “We cannot stand by when we now know that the owners conspired to collude.”

When I wrote on Mar. 26 that the Redskins and Cowboys had a good case and could sue the NFL if Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones were willing to become pariahs in league circles as late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was, I cited the comment from New York Giants owner John Mara to ESPN.com: “What (the Redskins and Cowboys) did was in violation of the spirit of the salary cap. They attempted to take advantage of a one-year loophole knowing full well (that) there would be consequences. Quite frankly I think they’re lucky they didn’t lose draft picks.”

As I had, the NFLPA noted that the NFL had approved the contracts in which the Redskins shifted $21 million to then-defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and $15 million to cornerback DeAngelo Hall and the Cowboys did the same with receiver Miles Austin to the tune of $10 million so it wasn’t like the league didn’t know that this was happening in 2010.

Making matters worse, the NFL took the $36 million from the Redskins and the $10 million from the Cowboys and then divided it among all of their rivals (including, of course, the Giants) except for New Orleans and Oakland, who allegedly committed minor cap violations of their own in 2010. Giving that $46 million to hard-pressed retired players or to NFL charities would be one thing, but this way the other 26 teams seem to be both jury and beneficiaries which doesn’t seem at all kosher to me.

NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler said that the union’s decision to sue a day after Burbank’s decision was pure coincidence and that this dispute is about what happened in 2010 to hold down player salaries league-wide by at least $1 billion, not about the money taken away from the Redskins and the Cowboys.

However, while I’m far from a legal expert, it sure seems to me that the NFLPA’s lawsuit should certainly make Snyder and Jones reconsider their decisions to let the matter drop. Washington and Dallas could definitely use another $18 million and $5 million, respectively, in salary cap room in 2013. Call your lawyers, Danny and Jerry. It’s time to play hardball.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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