I decided to go read the NFL Collective Bargaining agreement, under which Colin Kaepernick has filed a grievance alleging collusion to deny him employment.
The short answer to my questions is that the bar is set pretty high for a finding of collusion, but that if collusion is found to be widespread, the NFLPA can indeed file to terminate the entire CBA.
The CBA contains an entire section on collusion: ARTICLE 17 – ANTI-COLLUSION begins on page 119.
The probable grounds on which Kaepernick is claiming collusion are almost certainly defined in Section
17 (Prohibited Conduct):
(a) No Club, its employees or agents shall enter into any agreement, express
or implied, with the NFL or any other Club, its employees or agents to restrict or limit
individual Club decision-making as follows:
(i) whether to negotiate or not to negotiate with any player;
(ii) whether to submit or not to submit an Offer Sheet to any Restricted Free
(iii) whether to offer or not to offer a Player Contract to any player…
The enforcement mechanism is defined in Section 5:
Section 5. Enforcement of Anti-Collusion Provisions: Except as provided in Section
16(d) below, any player or the NFLPA, acting on that player’s or any number of players’
behalf, may bring an action before the System Arbitrator alleging a violation of Section 1
of this Article. In any such proceeding, the Federal Rules of Evidence shall apply. Issues
of relief and liability shall be determined in the same proceeding (including the amount
of damages, pursuant to Section 9 below, if any). The complaining party shall bear the
burden of demonstrating by a clear preponderance of the evidence that (1) the challenged
conduct was or is in violation of Section 1 of this Article and (2) caused any
economic injury to such player(s).
The important things to note here are that (1) this is not a court hearing before a judge or a jury; it is an arbitration hearing. (2) the Federal Rules of Evidence apply. This means that full Discovery is allowed as part of a pre-hearing process. (3) the burden of proof is not a criminal burden (beyond “reasonable doubt”) but the civil standard (“clear preponderance of the evidence”).
The remedies for a finding of guilt, however, extend beyond the matter of monetary damages to the player. The ultimate sanction is contained in this section:
Section 16. Termination: The NFLPA shall have the right to terminate this Agreement,
under the following circumstances:
(a) Where there has been a finding or findings of one or more instances of a
violation of Section 1 of this Article with respect to any one NFL season which, either
individually or in total, involved five or more Clubs and caused injury to 20 or more
(b) Where there has been a finding or findings of one or more instances of a
violation of Section 1 of this Article with respect to any two consecutive NFL seasons
which, either individually or in total, involved seven or more Clubs and caused injury to
28 or more players. For purposes of this Subsection 16(b), a player found to have been
injured by a violation of Section 1 of this Article in each of two consecutive seasons shall
be counted as an additional player injured by such a violation for each such NFL season;
(c) Where, in a proceeding brought by the NFLPA, it is shown by clear and
convincing evidence that 14 or more Clubs have engaged in a violation or violations of
Section 1 of this Article causing injury to one or more NFL players.
(d) In order to terminate this Agreement:
(i) The proceeding must be brought by the NFLPA;
(ii) The NFL and the System Arbitrator must be informed at the outset of
any such proceeding that the NFLPA is proceeding under this Section for the purpose
of establishing its entitlement to terminate this Agreement; and
(iii) The System Arbitrator must find that the Clubs engaged in willful collusion
with the intent of restraining competition among teams for players.
Clearly, with only one player grievance, the only grounds on which the NFLPA could apply for the termination of the CBA would be that laid down in Article c (collusion among 14 or more NFL teams). That seems, at first reading, to be a pretty high bar to clear in terms of evidence.
You will also notice that the NFLPA must state before the hearing that they intend, if successful, to apply for the termination of the CBA. They can’t turn around later if the hearing finds in favor of Colin Kaepernick, with proof of more than 14 clubs colluding, and then say “OK now we won, we are terminating the CBA”.
So, there is a spectrum of possible outcomes:
1. Special Arbitrator finds no compelling evidence of collusion; grievance is denied
2. Special Arbitrator finds compelling evidence of collusion among multiple teams, but less than 14 teams are involved; finds in favor of Kaepernick
3. Special Arbitrator finds compelling evidence of collusion among 14 or more teams; finds in favor of Kaepernick and nullifies the CBA IF the NFLPA had requested it as part of the hearing process
I still regard (1) as the most likely outcome, unless a “smoking gun” emerges in the form of informal communications between teams, coaches and/or the NFL. Absent any smoking gun evidence, it will be down to circumstantial evidence, which is unlikely to be compelling enough. Correlation does not equal causation, as the old saying goes. At that point, it then becomes a “court of public opinion” fight.
If (2) is the outcome, the NFL will be on the hook for (I am guessing) up to $50m in damages or more, with a significant public dent in its reputation.
(3) is the NFL’s worst nightmare – the premature end of the CBA, requiring a new CBA negotiation. The current CBA, which is a 10 year agreement with no opt-outs, is generally regarded as more generous to the owners than the previous CBA, which the owners had voided after 3 years in order to force a negotiation for a better deal for them, threatening a lockout as part of the negotiations. The NFLPA is unlikely to be feeling as generous next time around, especially given the strife over the conduct policy enforcement, and things could get messy in a hurry.