Eagles Wake-Up Call: Inside Lane Johnson’s Lawsuit

Why the Eagles' star right tackle may have a legitimate case against the NFL and NFLPA.

Lane Johnson. (Jeff Fusco)

Lane Johnson. (Jeff Fusco)

Lane Johnson filed lawsuits against both the NFL and NFL Players Association last Tuesday, but outside of a brief statement from one of his lawyers, Steve Zashin, little about the litigation was known. That changed, however, when Zashin and two of his colleagues joined “The Business of Sports with Andrew Brandt” podcast yesterday to discuss Johnson’s legal challenges.

Johnson filed unfair labor practice charges against the NFL and NFLPA, in addition to a complaint with the Department of Labor under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. That litigation, which stems from Johnson’s 10-game suspension for his second failed drug test, was filed on November 10, according to Zashin.

Zashin also noted the goals of the lawsuits are to recoup money Johnson has lost during his suspension, reinstate the future guaranteed money in Johnson’s contract that was voided by his suspension and to repair Johnson’s reputation. However, regardless of the outcome, the Eagles’ star right tackle, whom Philadelphia gave a five-year contract extension worth a reported $56.25 million in January, will still have to serve the remainder of his suspension.

“Lane is a very proud guy, and in Lane’s opinion, Lane was done wrong,” Zashin told Brandt. “As part of this, it’s about time that the players association steps up and starts protecting the players that it is charged to do under federal law.”

According to Patrick Hoban, one of Zashin’s colleagues, the unfair labor practice charge against the NFL was filed because Johnson’s camp feels the NFL withheld information they are legally required to disclose. Hoban noted there is a provision in the performance-enhancing substances (“PES”) policy detailing how there must be a neutral and independent person who verifies laboratory testing results.

But when no such thing occurred in Johnson’s case and Johnson’s team asked why, the NFL said they have an agreement with the NFLPA that they wouldn’t do so and that they have lab directors review their own test results. When Johnson’s team asked for a copy of that agreement, the NFL refused to hand it over.

“The NFL said, ‘No, you can’t see it. It’s there, but you can’t see it,'” Hoban said. “Now, the law is pretty clear that an employee who is subject to a union contract gets to see what the contract is and what it says, and the NFL isn’t providing that.”

Johnson also requested additional information that Hoban said he’s entitled to, including when he was tested and how many times he was tested, but the NFL wouldn’t give that to him either. Those details are important, Zashin noted, because the PES policy limits how much a player is tested and in what timeframe a player can be tested.

“What we faced was a situation where you’d request information from the NFL Players Association and the NFL Players Association said, ‘Oh, well, go get it from the NFL,'” Zashin said. “The NFL would say, ‘Go get it from the NFL Players Association.’ And so you end up playing this roundabout game, such that the player is denied his rights under the PES policy itself.”

As for the unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA, Johnson’s camp feels he wasn’t adequately represented and that Johnson’s union failed to fulfill their legal obligations.

“The NFLPA has — by law — what is referred to as the duty of fair representation, which means they have to treat Lane fairly, [and] they have to provide him information as to what they’re doing allegedly on his behalf in dealing with his employer — in this case, the NFL,” Hoban said. “The specific claims against the NFLPA are essentially that they didn’t do that.

“They didn’t give him an entire copy of the agreement under which he was being employed and under which he was disciplined. They didn’t provide him with information about these verbal or written side deals [and] that they frankly mislead him with some of the information they provided him about interpretations of the language — only to have that misinformation be made clear in the course of the hearing itself. He had three attorneys at the arbitration hearing, they said about two words and one of them was, ‘Hello.'”

As for the complaint with the Department of Labor against the NFLPA under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, David Vance, another one of Johnson’s lawyers, explained that litigation also stemmed from frustration over a lack of information being disclosed.

“That Act requires the NFLPA or any union to provide their members with a complete copy of the collectively bargained agreement,” Vance said. “Lane, despite multiple requests, to this day — and not just Lane, but the entirety of the membership of the NFLPA — does not know the complete terms of the collectively bargained agreement.

“You’ve got the membership — the players — that don’t know the terms of the agreement, and yet they’re being held accountable by the NFL to the very letter of these agreements, but [they] don’t know what they are.”

While the CBA is publicly available, Johnson’s legal team contends it doesn’t include amendments and other important information players don’t have access to.

“Apparently there are a whole bunch of other side deals and understandings between the union and the NFL, but yet none of the players have been alerted to what those side deals actually are,” Zashin said. “It’s a very basic principle, right? I’m going to hold you accountable to the strictest letter of policy, but I’m not going to tell you what the policy itself is and that creates the problem.”

According to Zashin, the NFL didn’t follow what’s laid out in the CBA during Johnson’s case. For example, the panel of arbitrators is supposed to be made up of three to five people, but only two participated. Zashin said that happened because of a “side deal” between the NFL and NFLPA, although they haven’t been shown proof of such an agreement.

“There are numerous other examples where what you see written down isn’t actually what exists in the world,” Zashin said. “I’ll give you another example: One of the ways in which a player can challenge discipline under the PES policy is by arguing that the protocols were [not] actually followed by the lab. But here’s the catch: If you’re not given the protocols, how can you actually challenge whether the protocols were followed in the particular instance, or if they even exist? And there are questions about whether certain protocols that are identified in the PES policy actually even exist today.

“That — to me — is a glaring, glaring problem. If I were a player, I’d be up in arms; if I were an agent, I’d be up in arms and say, ‘How can you possibly discipline players and allow them a defense, but not provide them any information relative to that defense?'”

WHAT YOU MISSED

“While the Eagles hardly got a finger on [Aaron] RodgersCarson Wentz spent most of the night running for his life and on occasion barely had enough to let the running backs slip out for a screen.” What They’re Saying.

“You just want to make sure that the team stays together and that we just continue to prepare and continue the process.” With their playoff hopes very slim, the Eagles will still try to finish this season strong.

“Everybody’s fighting to the end. That’s a sign that things are heading the right direction.” Doug Pederson thinks there’s progress in the team as he looks long-term.

Take a look at some of the best photos from Monday night, courtesy of our photographer Jeff Fusco.

Seven things we learned from the Monday night home loss to the Green Bay Packers.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Many factors are causing Fletcher Cox to hinder the Eagles in their last few games, opines Mike Sielski of the Inquirer.

There’s a healthy debate to be had over how much blame Cox himself deserves for this decline, but this much is certain: The debate itself doesn’t say much good about the Eagles and what’s supposed to be the strength of their defense – their line. If what Cox and head coach Doug Pederson argue is true, if Cox is still playing well but can do only so much because offensive linemen are constantly double-teaming him, then he is merely a very good player, not the dominant one the Eagles believed him to be.

In that case, the franchise’s most pressing order of offseason business can’t be to replenish their talent at cornerback or wide receiver. The Eagles will have to replace Bennie LoganConnor Barwin, and Vinny Curry, because if Cox is attracting that much attention, those players should be more effective than they’ve been.

The other explanation – and the more plausible one, given the high level at which he has played even earlier this season – is that Cox could be a great player, if only he and his coaches could extract that greatness from him every game. But at his news conference Tuesday, Pederson didn’t inspire the belief that he or anyone else on his staff could be that kind of master motivator. At the moment, everyone would settle for more disciplined play from Cox, for an end to these inexcusable roughing-the-passer penalties, but Pederson seemed to regard those damaging mistakes as simply the price of letting Fletch be Fletch.

Tommy Lawlor writes that effort just isn’t enough to have a good season in the NFL.

This team plays hard. You want to see guys slacking, go watch DRC [Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie] and Nnamdi [Asomugha] in 2012. There were legitimate effort questions with that bunch. This team is playing hard. But go back to my earlier point. Effort is a minimum.

Jeffrey Lurie doesn’t pay millions of dollars for effort. He pays Fletcher Cox to make plays. He pays Zach Ertz to make plays. He pays Vinny Curry to make plays. This team has holes in the roster, but the talent currently in place isn’t playing well enough. If anyone knew why, they’d be a genius. Sports history is filled with players who slump or have an off-year.

Good players grind away and work their way through the struggles. Aaron Rodgers was struggling earlier in the year. People started to really wonder if he was seriously declining. Anyone who watched him last night would disagree. Cox got paid to be a dominant defensive lineman. He started off pretty well, but has slumped in recent weeks. He is still disruptive and still eats up blockers, but the Eagles didn’t pay him mega-bucks for that. They need direct results.

Everyone wants to blame someone. Pederson can’t coach. [Jim] Schwartz isn’t doing a good job. Maybe it’s DL coach Chris Wilson. Maybe the money ruined Cox. I don’t know that there is a smoking gun here. Sometimes players just go up and down. That’s just a reality in sports. Very few players are legitimately great every week for years and years.

COMING UP

Doug Pederson will address the media at 10:50.

Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.


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