If Dan Snyder hadn't filed a grievance against the NFL, Washington Redskins fans might have filled out the paperwork themselves. They might even have occupied Park Avenue, where the league makes its high-rise home.
Two weeks later, the Twitterverse is still teeming with rage — and no small amount of incredulity — that the Redskins have been hit with a $36 million salary-cap penalty because of the way they structured contracts during the uncapped 2010 season. It's a conspiracy, the fans say. It's collusion. It just isn't fair.
Fair? Let me tell you about fair, because that's one of the things that seems to have been lost in this discussion — the great lengths the NFL goes to to level the playing field for all of its franchises, to make sure all of them have a chance win the grand prize.
It's the cornerstone of the league — and has been for some time, much longer than it's been a byword in other sports. In the NFL, the motto isn't: Every man for himself. It's: We're only as strong as our weakest member. That's why the draft was instituted in 1936, nearly three decades before baseball had one. It's also why the NFL was the first to share its television revenue (1962), the first to test for steroids (1987) and the first to have a salary cap that wasn't ridden with loopholes (1994).
Leaguethink, it's been called, and it's made the NFL the most successful enterprise in sports history. According to Forbes magazine, "the average team is now worth $1.04 billion." TV ratings, meanwhile, are off the charts. And a lot of it is because, on any given Sunday or in any given year, any club can win, even the small-market Green Bay Packers.
The Redskins, as we're all tired of being reminded, haven't been to the Super Bowl in 20 years. In that time, though, 22 other teams have gone, and five more have — unlike the Redskins — reached the conference title game. The NFL is the epitome of competitive balance. Or to put it another way: In baseball you have the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in football you have the Pittsburgh Steelers. If an NFL club loses season after season, it isn't because the deck is stacked against it; it's because it doesn't have the slightest idea what it's doing.
But the league counts on its owners to be able to see beyond their own luxury boxes, to understand that when the greater good is put first, everybody benefits. Take the pooling of television money. Who had more to lose by evenly dividing the pie than the Mara family, whose New York Giants franchise is in the largest TV market? The Maras could have resisted the notion of sharing and, instead, followed the baseball Yankees' model of World Domination. But if they had, would the NFL be what it is today, or would it be some lesser version overrun by a handful of big-market bullies?
So the Redskins aren't getting much sympathy from the Giants' John Mara, chairman of the Management Committee that took away their cap dollars. Indeed, Mara is feeling betrayed that Snyder and Dallas' Jerry Jones, who also was punished, couldn't behave themselves for a single uncapped year, couldn't resist the urge to put themselves before the league. What, you don't think other clubs, clubs with an average value of $1 billion, couldn't have written checks for $21 million and $15 million if they'd wanted to game the system (as the Redskins did with Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall)?
Let's face it, there was a certain amount of desperation in what Snyder and Jones did. After all, the Redskins, as previously stated, haven't made the NFL's Final Four since the 1991 season, and the Cowboys haven't gotten that far since '95. So they jumped on the opportunity, even though the league discouraged it, to front-load contracts during the uncapped year. It was a major part of their rebuilding strategy (and, in Dan's case, the latest in a succession of shortcuts that never seem to get the club anywhere).
It'll all come out in the arbitration hearing, presumably. For instance, is the league really guilty of collusion? Did it really tell teams to keep their spending down? Or did it merely tell them not to seek advantage by loading cap dollars into the uncapped year? Big difference there.
There was nothing, certainly, to prevent the Redskins from spreading the payments to Haynesworth and Hall over a longer period of time. But for Dan Snyder, it wasn't about fairness. It was about what was best for him. And the NFL didn't get to be the NFL by putting individual self-interest ahead of collective goals.
Finally, there's this whole idea that something got taken away from the Redskins. But is that what really happened? Or did the league simply say: "You've already spent this $36 million. We just aren't going to let you spend it twice"? If it's the latter, then the "penalty" isn't quite as harsh as it's been portrayed, is it?
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