What does collusion mean in NFL? Why Lamar Jackson vs. Ravens contract situation is scrutinized by fans, players

By | March 11, 2023

Lamar Jackson’s semi-availability has certainly caused a stir in the NFL.

The Ravens choosing to place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson and allow him to talk to other teams made many think that there was going to be a massive bidding war for the quarterback’s services.

Instead, things have been quiet.

Almost… too quiet.

The interest in Jackson has been sparse — if there has been any at all. Teams immediately communicated that they would not be involved in the Jackson sweepstakes, and that left many asking questions about exactly why nobody wanted Jackson.

There may be legitimate concerns about the type of contract that Jackson is seeking, but astute NFL fans have pointed out there’s another potential explanation for what is happening.

That would be collusion.

But what exactly is collusion? Here’s what to know about the law and legal principle as it takes center-stage during what was already one of the NFL’s most interesting contract sagas in recent history.

MORE: Latest Lamar Jackson trade rumors, news about potential contract extension

What does collusion mean?

Collusion is defined by Law.com as “a deceitful agreement” that is usually made in secret between two or more parties. The goal of the agreement is “to defraud and/or gain an unfair advantage over a third party, competitors, consumers or those with whom they are negotiating.”

Usually, there is a monetary benefit involved for those engaged in collusion. Law.com cites “wage fixing, secret rebates, or pretending to be independent of each other when actually conspiring together for their joint ends” as examples of the practice.

The NFL has dealt with collusion accusations during its history as an organization. And most recently, accusations that the practice has infiltrated the league have been bandied about in relation to Lamar Jackson.


Lamar Jackson collusion case

The accusation that NFL owners were colluding against Lamar Jackson first came after the Ravens placed the franchise tag on their 25-year-old quarterback.

Few were surprised by Baltimore’s decision to place the franchise tag on Jackson, a pending free agent. The team had expressed a desire to keep him but had been unable to agree to a long-term extension despite two years of contract negotiations.

What did surprise NFL fans and media analysts was that the Ravens placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson. That would allow other NFL teams to negotiate with Jackson and sign him to an offer sheet. The Ravens would then be able to either match the offer sheet or collect two first-round picks in exchange for Jackson.

Almost immediately after that news broke, reports began to surface that teams were not expected to pursue Jackson. It started with the Falcons, who were considered the favorites to land him if he didn’t remain with the Ravens.

From there, the list of teams said not to be in the Jackson sweepstakes grew to five. That immediately drew the attention of the NFL community, including former players Robert Griffin III and J.J. Watt.

The question: why wouldn’t quarterback-needy teams across the NFL jump at a chance to pursue Jackson? After all, he’s young, won the MVP in 2019 and led the Ravens to the playoffs in four of his five seasons as a starter.

Many believed that the answer to that question was that NFL owners didn’t want to capitulate to his contract demands. Jackson has been seeking a fully guaranteed contract akin to the $230 million one that Deshaun Watson received from the Browns last offseason.

The NFL’s owners were displeased by the contract given to Watson. That was partly related to sexual assault allegations against him when the deal was completed. However, the league’s desire to avoid giving out fully guaranteed contracts also played a role in the group’s collective disdain for the deal.

That led many to presume that the NFL owners had colluded to ensure no team would give Jackson a fully guaranteed deal.

IYER: Ranking Lamar Jackson’s best potential landing spots

Is there proof that the NFL is colluding against Lamar Jackson?

But is there any proof that the NFL is colluding against Jackson? That question is the crux of the issue for any case involving the Ravens quarterback.

On the one hand, it certainly sounds like there is at least some collusion going on in the NFL. Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson asked a few NFL agents about that possibility, and the response of one will certainly raise some eyebrows.

“Let’s be clear — these are billionaire owners,” an agent said. “They go to the same places. They go to the same country clubs. They buy their yachts from the same people. They speak to each other on a regular basis about multiple things that are mainly business. They are very incestuous by nature because they’re the 31 most powerful owners in the world as it relates to pro football in America.”

That said, the burden of proof in any collusion case is substantial. It must be shown that there is a formal, secret agreement made between the owners conspiring against either Jackson specifically or, more broadly, players who are searching for fully guaranteed contracts.

The problem with that? NFL owners are hyper-aware of potential collusion accusations and almost certainly wouldn’t allow any agreement of that nature to be recorded in any manner. That will make it difficult to prove that there is any sort of backroom handshake deal among the NFL’s 32 clubs.

Sure, someone aware of or involved in the deal could come forward and expose it. But even then, without any recorded evidence of such an agreement, it could be dismissed in prosecution as hearsay.

So, not only is collusion hard to prove, but the NFL owners can lean on other ways to explain the lack of interest in signing Jackson.

MORE: Ranking the 7 best quarterback options for the Ravens if Lamar Jackson leaves

Why NFL teams may not want to sign a Lamar Jackson contract

As the agent who pointed out the “incestuous nature” of NFL owners explained, Jackson’s recent injury history coupled with his overall expected cost would be enough to potentially scare away interested teams.

Lamar Jackson has missed one third of his games in the last two years. And he is a player where the indication has been very clear that he’s expecting the biggest contract in NFL history and for it to be fully guaranteed. That expectation takes your fraternity of 31 owners down to maybe none. It’s not easy to pay $250 million to a quarterback that’s been hurt. It’s not easy to pay it to one that’s never been hurt. If he gets hurt, that kind of salary is a franchise-killer for most teams. That’s the argument that goes on behind closed doors. Does that make it collusion? No. And oh, by the way, you have to give up two first-round picks just for the right to spend that money.

It also is problematic that teams won’t be able to guarantee they will get Jackson even if they sign him to an offer sheet. The Ravens could always match it. So, even if they are willing to spend the resources, they may balk at signing a deal and bailing out Baltimore after its negotiations with Jackson stalled.

Bailing out Baltimore is just part of the equation. As one agent pointed out, pursuing Jackson and missing out on him could have a devastating impact on the morale inside a team’s current quarterback room.

“If you’re Miami and you think Lamar is an upgrade, you can’t go after him publicly and sign him to an offer sheet and then when the Ravens match it, turn around and say, ‘Hey, Tua [Tagovailoa], we really love you,'” the agent told Robinson.

Indeed, this is true, and it is something that played out during the 2022 NFL offseason. Both the Browns and Falcons were involved in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes; each team’s pursuit of him angered their present starting quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan. Both passers were eventually traded, with Ryan’s trade coming even after the Falcons failed to land Watson.

So, some teams that are comfortable with the quarterbacks they have, like the Dolphins, may not be willing to take that same risk in pursuit of Jackson.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons that NFL teams should want to sign Jackson. He is young, talented and is a dynamic playmaker with both his arm and legs.

This is just to say that the NFL can make an argument that there are reasons for teams’ lack of interest in Jackson beyond the possibility of collusion.


Colin Kaepernick’s NFL collusion lawsuit

There have been plenty of collusion cases across the NFL over the years, but the most notable of the bunch was Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit against the NFL and its owners.

Kaepernick alleged in a 2018 complaint that he had been blackballed by the league following his 2016 decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.

During the 2016 season, Kaepernick completed 59.2 percent of his passes for 2,241 yards, 16 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 90.7 passer rating while running for 468 yards and two touchdowns in 11 starts. The knock on him was that the 49ers went just 1-10 on his watch.

Still, many believed that Kaepernick would draw interest on the open market. After all, he had led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance after taking over for Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season. He was set to enter his age-30 season and at the very least, it was believed he could find work as a high-end, mobile backup.

However, that work never came. Kaepernick only received one visit during the 2017 offseason. It came with the Seahawks in May. That led to the accusations that he was being blackballed for his political statements rather than his on-field performance.

The NFL adamantly denied the collusion accusations, insisting that Kaepernick’s inability to find work was a performance-based issue. The league eventually reached a settlement with Kaepernick and Eric Reid — Kaepernick’s former teammate who joined the lawsuit — in 2019. They were given a cumulative total of less than $10 million, per the Wall Street Journal.

Had Kaepernick won his suit, he would have been entitled to compensation worth three times what he lost as a result of the collusion.

Jackson’s situation hasn’t reached a boiling point near to that of Kaepernick’s. That said, it will be interesting to monitor exactly what happens if Jackson cannot find a fully guaranteed contract — or something of a similar ilk — in the future.

MORE: What it would cost for a team to sign Lamar Jackson

MLB collusion in the 1980s

It’s also important to note that the NFL isn’t the only sport in which major collusion scandals have occurred. One of the biggest happened in MLB during the late 1980s, when owners conspired to depress the salaries of free agents.

What exactly happened? Well, commissioner Peter Ueberroth encouraged owners not to sign players to lucrative, long-term contracts in order to depress the cost of signing quality players. This would make it easier for teams to become profitable.

As a result, free agency proved to be a bogged-down process during which star players often had to settle for one-year deals with their previous teams. Often, these players ended up being forced to take pay cuts or risk remaining unsigned for the season in question.

The result of Ueberroth and MLB’s tactics caused the average MLB salary to decline in 1986, marking the first time that had happened since free agency first began. This eventually drew the ire of the MLBPA, who filed two collusion lawsuits against the league — one in 1985 and one in 1986. They won each of them.

MLB didn’t stop trying to depress player salaries even despite this. The league created an “information bank” in 1987 that contained within it details of the offers being made to each player. The MLBPA filed another collusion lawsuit against the league in 1988 because of this practice.

Eventually, MLB and the MLBPA would settle these three lawsuits for a cumulative $280 million in 1990. By then, Ueberroth had stepped down as MLB commissioner and Fay Vincent was in charge of the league.

Why is this example important for the NFL to monitor? Well, the league may be reluctant to give out fully guaranteed contracts, but the owners cannot forbid that in any formal capacity. If they were to take a page out of MLB’s book and leave a paper trail, they could find themselves the subject of a major collusion lawsuit.

Of course, this won’t be an issue for the NFL so long as the crop of players requesting fully guaranteed deals is small.

But if the number of players — and in particular, quarterbacks — that want guaranteed deals grows, the NFL could find itself in a sticky situation if its owners still take a stance against them.