Players’ union sues the NFL

The NFL Players Assn. has accused the NFL of putting a secret salary cap in place in the uncapped 2010 season — a violation of antitrust laws — and is seeking monetary damages that could climb into the billions.

The union filed suit against the league Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, accusing the NFL of collusion for conspiring to set a $123-million cap for 2010, when owners would have required the consent of players to do so.

The NFL flatly denied the claim.

“There was no collusion,” the league said in a written statement. “There was no agreement. These claims are totally unfounded.”

The accusation opened yet another battleground for a league and union less than a year removed from a lockout and labor meltdown.

Calling the evidence of misbehavior “compelling and direct,” NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said: “We expect there are going to be a lot of live witnesses to this particular form of collusion.”

Kessler also said it was purely coincidence that the lawsuit was filed a day after the league’s decision to punish Washington and Dallas for overspending in 2010 was upheld by an arbitrator.

The union signed off on those punishments — the stripping of a combined $46 million in cap space of the Redskins and Cowboys over two seasons — and said it never questioned the notion that a team could be sanctioned for a cap violation in an uncapped year. The cap dollars taken away from the Redskins and Cowboys were reallocated to other teams, meaning the money will still be in the system for players to collect.

“The NFL never told us that these were for, quote, cap violations,” Kessler said. “In fact, just the opposite. The NFL, when we were negotiating about the cap this year, admitted that there was no salary cap in 2010 and any behavior by the teams would be entirely lawful and proper. They gave us no clue about any mythical salary cap. We only learned of that after the agreement was signed.”

In an assertion that clearly will be challenged as it paints the NFLPA as a naive victim, Kessler said the union trusted the word of the NFL that there was nothing amiss, and considered the possibility of collusion only when NFL owners and executives “started to spill their guts” to the media about the existence of a secret cap.

“We were frankly stunned when that spilled out in the record,” he said. “But spill it did.”

However, the NFL pointed to an agreement signed by union officials as part of the new labor deal that it says precludes the NFLPA from going back and unearthing issues related to the previous collective bargaining agreement.

In its statement, the league said: “On multiple occasions, the players and their representatives specifically dismissed all claims, known or unknown, whether pending or not, regarding alleged violations of the 2006 CBA and the related settlement agreement.”

But Kessler said that stipulation was not accepted by the Minnesota court, and that District Judge David Doty rejected that type of broader dismissal.