He caught a fat contract.

Photographer: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

NFL Collusion Is Collusion, Even If It Failed

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The two most-prized wide receivers are off the market. After months of speculation, dirty tricks, holdout threats and a potential collusion lawsuit, Dallas Cowboys' receiver Dez Bryant and Denver Broncos' receiver Demariyus Thomas have each signed long-term deals with their respective teams.

Now is not the time for the union to back off the league.

The Cowboys signed Bryant to a five-year, $70 million deal with $45 million guaranteed, while the Broncos signed Thomas to a five-year, $70 million deal with $43.5 million guaranteed. If those contracts seem rather similar to you, well, they are, and there's reason to be suspicious of it.

The NFL Players Association had been investigating whether the Cowboys and Broncos had been in contact with each other while negotiating with their star receivers, and threatened to pursue collusion charges should the teams fail to sign the players to long-term deals. The fear was that the teams were coordinating to avoid offering uneven contracts to two relatively comparable players, effectively artificially capping their value and stunting their ability to negotiate on a truly open market. That would likely have ripple effects beyond just this offseason, setting a new bar for long-term deals offered to future free-agent receivers.

Here's where the more NFL-friendly commentators will point out that these deals make Bryant and Thomas the highest-paid receivers not named Megatron. In 2012, Calvin Johnson signed a monster eight-year, $132 million deal with the Detroit Lions, a price-tag driven by his huge rookie contract struck in 2007, four years before the latest collective bargaining established the rookie wage scale. Johnson's deal was a major sticking point in the Bryant and Thomas negotiations; the teams reportedly rejected the players' proposals, telling them that Johnson's deal can't be used as a measuring stick for current value because of the different economic climate in which it was struck.

According to NBC Sports' Mike Florio, the mutual rejection raised the NFLPA's suspicions of collusion. ESPN's Dan Graziano reported that the union had "credible information" that Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told Bryant that he'd spoken with Broncos general manager John Elway about the negotiations. The striking similarity of the final deals does little to dispel these suspicions, even if the players ultimately did get paid a fortune.

It's hard to tell whether the teams colluded and if so, that it had any impact in driving down Bryant's and Thomas's contracts. The guaranteed money is nothing to sneer at, and Denver is touting Thomas's deal as "the biggest contract in Broncos history." You could also argue that $15 million a year is a relative bargain for your franchise receiver. But even if nobody could really tell you what these players would have earned in a free market, the NFLPA should ostensibly still be able to tell you whether or not it thinks collusion occurred.

Graziano's source indicated that the union would move ahead with collusion charges only if the two stars didn't get long-term deals. But it shouldn't drop matters now that they have. It's the NFLPA's responsibility to continue its investigation regardless, precisely because it could affect future contracts for its members. If the union doesn't, it's either a sign that accusations of collusion were yet another bargaining tactic, or that the NFLPA is once again failing its players and caving to league pressure.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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