Tampering with the ref?

Photographer: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Jets and Patriots Tamper With NFL's Dumbest Rule

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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In the latest installment of mutual hair-pulling between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, the Jets have filed tampering charges against Patriots owner Robert Kraft for comments he made about Darrelle Revis. If anything, let's hope this petty back-and-forth exposes the tampering rule's utter frivolity once and for all.

Earlier in March, the Jets signed Revis to a monster deal, luring him away from the Super Bowl-winning Patriots and back to the team that drafted him. Kraft discussed the signing during a break between the owners' meeting on Monday. Via CSN New England's Tom Curran:

"I speak as a fan of the New England Patriots," said Kraft. "We wanted to keep him, we wanted him in our system. We have certain disciplines and we had hoped it would work out. It didn’t. We just don’t think about the short-term decisions. For example, next year we have three very good young defensive players coming up (for contracts) and we have to factor that we just don’t look at this year, we look out at the next few years. We’ve done okay doing that.

"[The Jets] are the team that drafted him. I think he feels a great commitment there, so we understand his going back and we’re sorry he didn’t stay with us."

The Jets filed tampering charges the next day, a move most sportswriters see as childish retaliation for what happened in December, when the Patriots hit Jets's owner Woody Johnson with a tampering charge of their own. With Revis under contract in New England, Woody Johnson commented on the corner having signed with the rival Patriots for the season for just $12 million. “Darrelle is a great player,” Johnson said. “ If I thought I could have gotten Darrelle for that [contract], I probably would have taken him. It was our best judgment to do what we did. Darrelle’s a great player. I’d love Darrelle to come back.” 

The NFL's anti-tampering policy defines tampering as "any interference by a member club with the employer-employee relationship of another club or any attempt by a club to impermissibly induce a person to seek employment with that club or with the NFL." With regard to public comments, the rule prohibits "any public or private statement of interest, qualified or unqualified, in another club’s player to that player’s agent or representative, or to a member of the news media." As an example, the policy offers this comment as a prohibited statement: “He’s an excellent player, and we’d very much like to have him if he were available, but another club holds his rights.”

Under this, Johnson's comments sound like a textbook example of tampering, while Kraft's comments, albeit seemingly more benign, are perilously close to the actual example provided in the tampering policy. The Jets are currently getting a lot of heat in the media for continuing playground spat over comments that won't have any meaningful effect on Revis' contract status.

Depending on how you want to look at it, you might see this as both teams being well within their rights to call out behavior that does appear to be against the rules, or both teams being wrong to make a big deal out of "tampering" practices that are rampant and generally accepted throughout the NFL. The third option is to see this not as an indictment of either team, but of the NFL's tampering policy itself, which appears more arbitrary and pointless by the day. The clause prohibiting statements about signed players could easily be interpreted as a ban on pretty much any statement on any player that isn't currently unsigned.

The enforcement of tampering rules is also wildly inconsistent. The so-called "tampering window" has been open since the 2013 offseason, yet another softcore provision that effectively facilitates little more than a whole lot of winking and nodding. The league allows teams to negotiate with players still under contract for three days prior to the start of free agency, but prohibits any deals to be officially signed. This practice is also known as "legal tampering," which tells you all  you need to know about how seriously the league actually takes its officious tampering policy.

And so we get a flurry of "leaks" -- mostly by NFL-employed "reporters" -- on agreements struck "in principle" for a frenzied three days before the official opening of the free-agent market. News that former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had agreed to join the Miami Dolphins trickled out the Sunday before the Tuesday afternoon start of free agency, causing some discussion of potential tampering violations. But unlike the Patriots and Jets, the Lions won't pursue tampering charges against the Dolphins, a sign that teams tend to look the other way at this sort of thing. 

NFL officials could still investigate the Dolphins on its own, and I wouldn't put it past them. After the legal tampering period ended, the league sent a memo to the 32 teams wagging its finger at reports of "written or oral agreement" and announcing it was "beginning investigations into a number of reported agreements with clubs." The NFL just loves to remind everyone that it wields the hammer.

That is, unless is involves potential tampering by one of its most powerful owners. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones averted an investigation last year despite taking a phone call from Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who reportedly expressed his desire to join the team. Jones had his lawyers call the Vikings to smooth things over, and both the Vikings and the NFL let it go. Sports Illustrated's Peter King didn't think the league would take action anyway, since Jones was reportedly too "tipsy and waiving his arms" for the call to be construed as a serious football conversation. 

Of course, the NFL isn't the only league that takes to pearl-clutching over innocuous comments. Last March, the New York Knicks considered bringing tampering charges against the Chicago Bulls because of a supposed recruiting conversation between Joakim Noah and Carmelo Anthony. So apparently players can't talk to each other, and owners can't talk to the media about opposing players. Maybe we'd all be better off negotiating contracts solely through emoji

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net