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Uncapped season is coming up fast for NFL

| Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009

Unless the NFL and its unionized players agree to a deal soon, 2010 will be the first season in a generation without the salary cap, the device both sides agree helped keep teams equally competitive.

Without a new collective bargaining agreement in place by March, 439 pros — including 162 starters — will hit the market as unrestricted or restricted free agents, according to a list of athletes provide by the NFL Players Association.

"The NFL is prepared for an uncapped year, (and) that should signal some concerns for all of us," said union assistant executive director George Atallah at the NFLPA's Washington headquarters.

The NFL's salary cap limits the amount teams can spend on signing players at $127 million this season. It also pegs a minimum payroll of $114 million, which forces potentially cheap owners to spend money.

In an uncapped year, it remains to be seen if big-market franchises such as the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins could "buy" a championship by plucking a handful of the best remaining talent from lower-revenue clubs.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello insists fans won't "see the uncapped year rules having any negative impact on competitive balance," in part, because it's the smallest crop of free agents ever.

The final eight playoff teams only will be able to sign a free agent for every one they lose, but all others have no such restrictions. And each club receives an extra "transition" tag to allow them to keep the rights of another valuable player.

Even so, sports experts worry about the future health of the NFL if no deal is reached and the cap goes the way of the dinosaurs.

"You do away with the concept of 'any given Sunday,'" said New York University sports economist Lee Igel. "It's the idea that a small-market team can compete with a big-market team."

The players say they want a deal to avoid being locked out, something owners have signalled they would do after the uncapped 2010 season.

"We've had serious negotiations with them, but so far we haven't had the progress we hoped," said the NFLPA's Atallah. " (NFLPA director) DeMaurice Smith has proposed to the NFL that by the Super Bowl we have a 'lock in' negotiation instead of a lockout. He and (Tennessee Titans center/union representative) Kevin Mawae have proposed the idea of guaranteeing the future of football by finding a neutral site and staying there until we have a deal."

The NFL's Aiello declined to say whether owners would agree to round-the-clock bargaining.

A possible sticking point is a lawsuit that's before the U.S. Supreme Court. On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court begins hearing arguments in a case pitting Illinois hat-maker American Needle against the NFL over the awarding of an apparel contract to Reebok in 2000. A decision might not come until May.

"The case is about the ability of a league to make routine business decisions without the threat of antitrust litigation," Aiello said.

The NFL and other sports leagues have lost similar cases over the decades. But recently, the NFL triumphed at the district and circuit levels by contending the league exists as a single corporate entity — not 32 separate businesses — when cutting merchandise deals. The NFL then appealed to the highest court for its blessing, arguing that even player contracts should be immune from federal antitrust legislation.

That would hurt NFL players and those in pro hockey, basketball and baseball — their collective bargaining contracts end around 2011, too — because owners could legally collude to block free agency, cut wages or otherwise do whatever they want on "core venture functions" of their cartels — unfettered by regulations or lawsuits.

"Either way American Needle as a case goes, the incentive now is for the NFL to wait," said Justin C. Harmon, a sports-law expert at Florida's Northwood University . "If the NFL loses, it all reverts to the status quo. If the NFL wins, then it will be treated as a conglomerate of owners. A win means that the owners can justify their actions as long as they claim it's something vital to their business operations. They will be acting as one, without any antitrust scrutiny."

In the Steelers' locker room, players are thinking more about Sunday's tilt against the Dolphins than they are about litigation. But that's likely to change after the season.

"Right now, your mindset isn't on it," said Steelers' cornerback and union rep Deshea Townsend, who becomes a free agent in March. "But I'm sure when the season ends, for a lot of guys, February and March are going to be some trying times."

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