It was bound to happen. The NFL has announced that they will begin an investigation into the contract agreements that appear to be happening during the league's three-day negotiating period. As per ESPN's Adam Schefter:
NFL: "League office is beginning investigations into a number of reported agreements with clubs. Violations will be dealt with accordingly."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 9, 2015
All across the NFL, leaks of agreements between players and teams have begun to spring up. The most notable of those reports include the Miami Dolphins and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the Philadelphia Eagles and running back Frank Gore, the Kansas City Chiefs and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the San Diego Chargers and offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, and the San Francisco 49ers and wide receiver Torrey Smith. All of the deals have to wait until Tuesday at 4pm before the player can sign a contract, but it appears everything has been worked out.
Except for adherence to the NFL rules. Under the league's policy for the three days before free agency officially begins, teams may contact a player's representatives and discuss "negotiating positions." They can discuss everything about a contract, but at no time can a team actually offer a deal to the representative.
In other words, a team and a player's representatives can lay out a fictional idea of compensation for a player to join a team, including signing bonus, years on the contract, yearly salary, guaranteed money, and every administrative piece that goes into a contract, but they cannot say it is actually a contract. The team and the representatives are free to go back and forth in negotiations, hammering out the details of the fictional idea, but they cannot say it is actually a contract. The team and the representative can agree that the team could hypothetically sign the player to the agreed upon fictional idea terms, and the representative can say the player would sign the agreed upon fictional idea terms, but they cannot say it is actually a contract.
Once you call it an offer or a contract, you have violated the NFL's rules, and now an investigation has to be done.
Somebody get Ted Wells on the phone.
What kind of investigation is the NFL going to do? Ring, ring. Ring, ring. "Hello, this is Commissioner Goodell calling for Mr. Ross and Mr. Hickey. Can you please put them on a conference call?"
"This is Stephen Ross. I have Dennis Hickey with me."
"Did you guys make an offer to Ndamukong Suh?"
"Oh, okay. Thanks for your time."
Is there ink on a paper anywhere? If the player is saying he is going to sign with a team, based on the "negotiating positions" that were expressed by a club to the player's representatives, is that the team's fault? How can the team tell a player who is technically still under contract with another team what to do?
What is the magic word? Offer? What if the Eagles told Frank Gore's representatives, "We would be prepared to offer Gore a package that could look like..." The word offer is in the sentence, but it does not seem as if they are making an offer, because the words "prepared" and "could" are also involved. How do you prove that a team made an "offer" instead of an expression of a "negotiating position?"
The league gave the teams permission to talk to agents. Agents are going to relate those discussions to their players. The players and agents are going to respond to the teams. The back and forth negotiations of positions has to eventually lead to something, right? Is that not the definition of negotiations? According to Dictionary.com, a negotiation is "discussion aimed at reaching an agreement." If the league is allowing negotiations, how can there not be an agreement at the end of it?
I get it, the NFL wants to make free agency a big deal, and they want all of the news to dominate when it comes out. They want free agency to be their big event for the month of March, allowing the league to continue their year-round domination of the sports landscape. They do not want contracts being signed before the actual start of the league year.
But, it was the league, not the teams and not the players, who opened Pandora's box by allowing three days of negotiations to legally happen before free agency started. There is no turning back now. The league is getting what it wants, it is in the news. It might be two days before it expected, but these deals are making headlines. Trying to now do an investigation into teams holding the negotiations that they were told is allowed, because the negotiations were supposed to happen without an agreement (and thus, would not have met the definition of a negotiation), is just ridiculous.
Teams are going to express their positions, players are going to express their positions through their representatives, and the two sides will find common ground.
Just do not call it an agreement.