Hutchinson's future in hands on arbiter, NFLPA says

Updated: March 17, 2006, 4:45 PM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- The Seahawks' hopes of keeping All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson will be decided by an arbitration process.


That will delay the Sunday deadline for the team to match an offer to Hutchinson by the Minnesota Vikings.

The NFL Players Association said on Friday that the league has filed a claim on behalf of the Seahawks contending a clause in the offer sheet Hutchinson signed with the Vikings last weekend circumvents the league's labor contract. That would mean that Seattle does not have to match that clause to keep Hutchinson, who is designated as their transition player.

The clause in question would guarantee Hutchinson the entire contract sum if Hutchinson is not the team's highest-paid offensive lineman.

Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the NFLPA, said the union will argue against the Seahawks' and league's claims.

"They say the clause circumvents our collective bargaining agreement. It is our belief that it does not," Berthelsen said Friday.

The special master will determine during a Saturday telephone conference call if the labor agreement gives him jurisdiction in the case. The league claims it does, Berthelsen said.

NFL spokesman Michael Signora confirmed that the NFL had filed the case.

Berthelsen said if the special master determines he has jurisdiction, he will hold a hearing on Monday in Philadelphia. If not, the case will fall to a non-injury grievance arbiter, who will convene a hearing.

Either way, a decision would come after the Sunday deadline by which the Seahawks have to match Minnesota's offer.

Hutchinson signed a $49 million, seven-year offer sheet with Minnesota last Sunday. It included $16 million guaranteed. The Seahawks believe that is all they have to match.

But a ruling against the NFC champions would require them to also match a provision in the offer that states if Hutchinson is not the team's highest-paid offensive lineman at any time after the first year of the contract, the final six years of the deal becomes guaranteed.

Such a provision is likely a deal breaker. All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones is Seattle's highest-paid offensive linemen, and would remain so even if the Seahawks matched the Hutchinson offer.

Jones, a six-time Pro Bowler, received $54.5 million -- with up to $20 million in a signing bonus and incentives -- over seven years to remain a Seahawk last April.

Berthelsen said the union's interpretation of the issue is that the clause is permitted by the CBA because it is a "principal term" of the agreement.

That is defined in the contract as salary, incentives and individual league honors -- plus "any modifications of and additions to the terms ... requested by the free agent and acceptable to the New Club, that relate to non-compensation terms [including guarantees, no-cut, and no-trade provisions] ..."

The league and the Seahawks are contending that last point.

In 1993, the first year of unrestricted free agency in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts signed Will Wolford, Buffalo's transition player, to an offer sheet that included a clause that guaranteed he be the team's highest-paid offensive player.

The Bills, who already had quarterback Jim Kelly as their highest-paid offensive player, argued the clause violated the CBA. An arbiter said it did not. The Bills declined to match the offer sheet, and Wolford signed with the Colts to become their highest-paid offensive player.

After that decision, the league and the union amended the CBA. It now states that no team attempting to match an offer sheet for one of its transition players can be required by an escalator clause similar to Wolford's to pay that player more than what the offering team would pay him.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press