Trending Issues in Sports Law: Are media outlets violating the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Players Union and Owners?
Sports radio, 24-hour news stations and sports-based websites have fueled the desire for sports fans to get instant access to news involving their team as soon as it happens. However, the need to satisfy fans’ appetites for immediate news updates may run contrary to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the Players Union and Owners. The CBA mandates a negotiation period where teams and players can discuss potential contracts, but no offers can actually be made. Teams also can discuss, but not enter into any trades of players, until the official season begins.
Despite the prohibition on conducting any official business, the media recently reported several free agent “signings” and “trades.” To some degree, the sanctity of the negotiation period was reaffirmed when Frank Gore reversed his verbal commitment to the Eagles and signed with the Colts.
Following this flurry of media activity, the NFL announced that it would be investigating whether there had been any violations of the negotiation period rules. Part of this stems from an anti-tampering policy. Prior to the negotiation period, any discussions or references to players signed with other teams will result in swift punishment. It is unclear what a team could say during the negotiation period that could be “improper” tampering.
The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) and the NFL have also expressed concern because the players and owners are not taking full advantage of the three day period to establish the fair market value of certain players. It is not certain who benefits. Consider a star wide receiver, who goes to the first team and is then told he could make $9 Million a year. Theoretically, he could go to other teams and find one who might pay him $10 Million. Of course, he might find that everybody else thinks he should get $7 Million. Based on that hypothetical, what is the player to do if the first meeting ends with the sentence: “We could pay you $9 Million, but we are not sure what our other commitments will be, we may only have $8 Million to pay you on Tuesday.”
It will be interesting to see whether any teams, players or agents are accused of violating the negotiation period. As this is a gray area, there will need to be some firm guidelines on how discussions must take place. Can the NFL or NFLPA define any actual rules for this negotiation period beyond the fundamental principal that no matter what anybody agrees to, both sides can pull out of any “deal” prior to the official free agent signing period? It is also possible that these memorandum and press releases are all that we will ever hear on this topic.