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Steelers admit to salary cap infraction

They could face an NFL fine and lose draft choices

Monday, August 23, 1999

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Steelers have turned themselves in to NFL authorities for an alleged salary-cap violation, and find themselves under investigation for an offense that carries a maximum fine of $2 million and/or the loss of draft choices.

So as not to be confused with the cap-juggling San Francisco 49ers -- who also are under a league investigation -- and the bonus-happy Dallas Cowboys, President Dan Rooney said yesterday that his Steelers were more guilty of an error than tomfoolery.

"I don't think we did anything [improper]," Rooney said of the violation, which is believed to involve the last contract of retired offensive lineman Will Wolford.

"They're investigating other teams, not just the Steelers. That's why we turned ourselves in. We just felt it was the right thing to do."

As for possibly facing the maximum penalty, Rooney said he hoped the team's transgression wouldn't merit so stiff a sentence.

He wouldn't divulge the specifics of the case because of the ongoing investigation. But he said whether it was a serious offense or not, the Steelers would have reported themselves to the NFL, regardless.

The league, in conjunction with the NFL Players Association, uses its management council to investigate salary-cap allegations. If there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations, the management council -- consisting of NFL staffers -- then reports its findings to appointed special master Jack Friedenthal of the George Washington University law school. The special master is supposed to rule on each case, and turn over authority for discipline to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Not only might a team receive a penalty if deemed guilty of a violation, but team executives, players and agents found to conspire to avert the salary cap can face a $250,000 fine as well.

Friedenthal has yet to adjudicate a case involving the 6-year-old salary cap, however.

Rooney declined to say when and how the alleged Steelers violation was discovered and reported to the league. As for the investigation, "It's been going on for a while. They don't have any idea when it's going to be finished." Investigators have the right to look at a team's books, but they haven't done that with the Steelers.

Wolford signed with the Steelers as a free agent in 1996, specifically to play left guard. The Pro Bowl tackle had bonuses written into his contract paying him additional money if he was moved back to his customary and more taxing position, left tackle. After two seasons of light duty at left tackle, the starting left guard agreed to renegotiate his deal to help free salary-cap room for the Steelers. The renegotiations apparently removed $400,000 in left-tackle bonuses.

Last August, Wolford was moved to left tackle -- where he started last season despite numerous injuries. He retired in the off-season, with one season remaining on his Steelers contract at a $2.1 million salary.

Part of the NFL investigation into the 49ers focuses on a bonus -- whether it was paid or not, or waived. Now-retired tight end Brent Jones, a onetime Steelers draftee, forgave a $500,000 bonus apparently owed by San Francisco. There are allegations that the 49ers made under-the-table payments, but former club president Carmen Policy -- now holding a similar post with the Cleveland Browns -- has denied any wrongdoing.

The 49ers were investigated previously on allegations of salary-cap finagling but were never penalized.

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