A seemingly benign part of the NFL's statement on Peyton Manning looks like it could become the league's next Deflategate

On Monday, the NFL cleared Peyton Manning in their investigation following an Al Jazeera report that human-growth hormone (HGH) had been shipped to his house

While many argue the semantics of “innocent” versus “no credible evidence,” a much more important fight is flying under the radar and it could turn into the NFL’s next Deflategate. That is, a case that ends up in court to decide just how much power the NFL has over the players.

It starts with the NFL’s statement on Manning. It is the second sentence of the statement, a seemingly benign part that raised some eyebrows, but not for the right reason. It reads:

“The Mannings were fully cooperative with the investigation and provided both interviews and access to all records sought by the investigators.”

Some thought this was a sign that the NFL was bowing to one of their biggest stars, something akin to an apology for dragging him through this mess.

A closer look suggests that this part of the statement was intended to send a bigger and more important message, a message to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

Keep in mind, the NFL is still investigating four other players in the Al Jazeera probe, including Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers of the Green Bay Packers, former Packer Mike Neal and James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unlike Manning, those four players are still active in the NFL.

After the NFL released their statement, the NFLPA released their own statement, a stern 2-sentence paragraph that seems to be a direct reply to the NFL’s one sentence on Manning’s cooperation. It read:

“As a former player, Peyton Manning is free to do whatever he believes is in his best interest. The Union knows that he understands the rights of players under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and would never do anything to hurt or undermine active players in support of those rights.”

Why is this important? Because the four active players under investigation don’t want to meet with the NFL. They don’t want to do what Manning did and the NFLPA is trying to make sure it is clear that Manning is not under the same category as the others and thus he did not set a precedent, one the NFL appears to be trying to establish.

Those four players have submitted sworn affidavits to the NFL in lieu of meetings. The NFL has rejected those statements, according to ESPN. ESPN wrote:

“The league rejected the NFL Players Association’s view that affidavits constitute reasonable cooperation by the players and confirmed that they are required to participate in in-person interviews, the source said.”

By pointing out that Manning fully cooperated, the NFL can now use that against the other players, basically saying to the players and to the fans, “if one of the greatest players ever can meet with us, why can’t these four players?”

The union’s statement is saying Peyton is free to do whatever he wants, but that doesn’t mean active players have to do that.

The players association also sounds a little upset at Manning for seemingly throwing the active players under the bus. No doubt the union would have preferred that Manning stood firm with the other players, which would have given their stance much more credibility.

So what we have now is an old fashioned stare down in front of the OK Corral and somebody is going to shoot.

Remember, once the Deflategate case hit the courts, it was no longer about Tom Brady’s guilt or innocence. It was about Roger Goodell’s power and whether he had the right under the collective bargaining agreement to punish Brady as he sees fit.

If the NFL tries to force these players to meet in person and they refuse, one or both sides could try to force the issue and take the case to court. At that point, it will become “Deflategate II and the fight for power in the NFL,” and another future Hall of Fame quarterback will be right in the middle.

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