- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

Circumventing the salary cap is the American way. You get away with what you can in the cynical world of sports. But we now have a case of an NBA owner brazenly breaking the cap rules and another instance of two NFL team officials being suspected of the same. It will be interesting to see if the two leagues deal with white-collar crime as heavy-handedly as they do transgressions by players.

Think about it. If a player flunks a drug test, he gets suspended sometimes as much as a year. If he bumps the referee or tackles with undue force, he also gets sat down. But what happens when a high-ranking executive one of the league's own does something against the best interests of the game? It's not so cut-and-dried, is it? There's a lot of room for plea bargaining and sweeping stuff under the rug.

The NBA owner referred to is the Minnesota Timberwolves' Glen Taylor. Taylor has already admitted to having a written, secret agreement with former Maryland Terp Joe Smith one that would go into effect after Smith had completed his third one-year contract with the team (at which point the team could exceed the cap to sign him). That's a major-league no-no.

"What I was trying to do was keep a player on the same team, in a small market, over a period of time and pay him a competitive wage," Taylor told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I thought that was … [in] the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement… . I thought it was a righteous thing. My intent was to help the team and to resurrect Joe's career here and keep him here."

A righteous thing? Wow. And they talk about athletes having a loose grip on reality. What Taylor was really trying to do was keep the Timberwolves from dropping off the face of the basketball earth. They had already had Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury fly the coop, and pretty soon Kevin Garnett was going to be the only player they had left. So Taylor cheated.

Look, we all understand the problems faced by small-market teams especially in cold-weather places like Vancouver, Toronto and Minneapolis. (Exhibit A: Steve Francis' refusal to sign with the Grizzlies.) But the cap, let's not forget, was instituted to protect those teams by limiting the amount that could be spent on salaries. Yes, the wealthier clubs still have certain advantages, but that doesn't seem to have helped the Knicks much, does it? They're still trying to buy a championship, all these years later.

If any owner should respect the cap, understand its importance to the league, it's a small-market owner. And yet here we have Miller blatantly ignoring it. Throw the book at him, I say fine him, suspend him, take Smith away from him, let him have it good, as a warning to the others.

Which brings us to Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark. Policy and Clark have been grilled by the NFL Management Council about contracts they negotiated with Steve Young, Brent Jones and Jim Druckenmiller in the late '90s. There seem to be, ahem, some irregularities which may have given the 49ers a competitive advantage when they were trying to win another Super Bowl.

Unlike Miller, Policy has been anything but contrite. "Nothing I did was intended to avoid the salary cap," he has said. "And even if there were some technical violation found by some interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement, I'm stating that it did not have any significant competitive ramifications connected to it."

The key word there, of course, is "intended." Policy, who now works for the Browns (along with Clark), thinks he's blameless because he didn't intend to avoid the cap. But who cares about intentions? All I care about is the result of his actions. If a free safety goes crashing helmet-first into a receiver and puts him in a wheelchair, should we care that he "didn't mean to hurt him"?

Sorry, I'm not a very forgiving guy when it comes to such matters. To me, competitive balance is one of the pillars on which any league is built. If you have a club in Green Bay, Wis., it should have just as much of a chance to win the title as a club in, say, Chicago. That's why you have drafts and waiver rules and salary caps to level the playing field as much as possible. Any club executive who doesn't understand that and plays by his own rules should be dealt with severely.

The NFL hasn't always brought down the hammer, though. When Redskins coach George Allen got caught trading the same draft picks twice back in the '70s, he was bawled out by the commissioner and instructed to square accounts with the aggrieved parties, but that was it (aside from a piddling $5,000 fine assessed the club). Policy and Clark, if guilty, deserve far rougher treatment. After all, how can owners and general managers expect players to be responsible if they're not going to be accountable themselves?

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