CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Crime and no punishment: Tampering is NFL's open secret

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You see it going on over expensive steaks as thick as a phone book at the NFL scouting combine. There are also stories of it going on at the Pro Bowl as fruity drinks are sucked down poolside.

So how come nobody ever gets caught tampering in the NFL?

"It's the un-punishable crime," one agent said.

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Call the lawmen, then. The crime rate is about to go up.

As the NFL nears the completion of the labor agreement between the league's owners and the players, we are readying to embark on what should be the wildest two weeks the NFL has ever seen.

In a two-week span, teams will have to re-sign their own players, seek out and sign free agents, sign their rookies, undrafted players and also start training camp.

Oh, and tamper.

The NFL rules prohibit teams from making contact with the agents for players on other teams until the free-agency period begins. This year, they couldn't even do deals with their own players because of the lockout.

Anybody who thinks that didn't go on is being naïve. Anybody who thinks the agents have contact with other teams as soon as the rules are set is dumber than those on the Casey Anthony jury.

The proposed NFL post-agreement plans are to have a three-day window for teams to sign their own players before the open of the free-agency period.

"That's when the real tampering will go on," said an agent. "I don't believe it's started too much already because we don't know the rules. Some calls might be being made. But when the rules get made, and we know what the cap is and what the particulars are, that's when it will start. That three-day window will include teams talking to the agents for players on other teams."

Here's the deal on that: If they all do it, which they do, what personnel man can rat out another team?

"I know there have been some teams calling my guys already," said one team's general manager. "But there's really nothing I can do about it. I can't really prove it."

For the player and the agent, it actually makes sense to do it this year. Why do a deal with your own team in the three-day window before getting the chance to check the value on the open market?

Would you sell a house to a friend before finding out what you can get on the open market?

Albert Haynesworth signed his mammoth $100 million deal with the Redskins hours after free agency began in 2009. (Getty Images)  
Albert Haynesworth signed his mammoth $100 million deal with the Redskins hours after free agency began in 2009. (Getty Images)  
"I would agree with the assessment about the early deals," one NFL coach said. "It certainly is of greater importance this year because of the short window before we play. A number of teams have a considerable amount of slots to fill and early deals will go a long way in determining their success this season."

That's just it. The agents will already have an idea as to the value of the player. The calls have been made. The feelers are out.

"And now we're going to give them a chance to descend on us in Atlanta," the general manager said. "Why is the league bringing us all to Atlanta to give the agents an easy chance to get to us? Why not just line us all up and say let the tampering begin?"

You can bet a bunch of agents will be in Atlanta when the owners meet, especially now that the league has asked all top club personnel to be there to discuss the specifics of the new labor deal.

The agents are all in Indianapolis during combine week because they have to be there as part of their certification process. You always see agents and front-office personnel or coaches huddled in different parts of downtown Indy talking football -- and probably deals. Teams can hide the tampering under the guise of talking about the players the agent represents on their own team while really talking about a player on another team.

"When a deal gets done minutes after the open of free agency, of course it's going to open some eyes," said one AFC personnel director. "But I don't know if it's quite as bad as people make it out to be. But it goes on."

The smart agents also hit the owners' meetings each year. That's for face time, but there have been plenty of deals done there as well.

That's why Atlanta could be a hotbed for activity this week -- if the rules are finalized.

"In February, it's rampant," said the agent. "Why not? You never see people penalized for it. So they all do it. Of course, deals get done before the deadline. This is a little different because the rules aren't in place yet. If the rules were in place, there would be more activity. But watch out during that three-day window. It's going to be crazy."

And here's a bet: Nobody gets called out for doing it.

It's the crime that isn't punished. Why wouldn't you commit it?


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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