Earlier this month, Deion Sanders suggested that there was not one but two teams willing to pay Crabtree $40 million over five years, about twice the amount of money that the Niners were offering.
This raises the question of how Sanders would know that fact. It seems fairly clear that Sanders didn't call the other 31 teams' GMs and ask "Would you pay $40 million for Crabtree?" It also seems fairly clear that those GMs didn't call Sanders, either.
It is possible that he heard this from his agent, Eugene Parker, who is also Michael Crabtree's agent? But then that would require that other teams have been in contact with Parker, which would be prima facie evidence of tampering.
The Niners are familiar with tampering charges. After all, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punished them in 2007 for tampering with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
This raises a significant question. What should the punishment be if one or more teams did, in fact, tamper with the Niners' ability to sign Michael Crabtree?
First off, let me be clear: I am not saying that tampering has occurred. I do believe, however, there are grounds for the NFL to conduct an investigation.
Second, I am not a lawyer, but I do think that treating this as a legal case would be useful. I also point out that I have not seen the NFL's constitution or by-laws, so some of these suggestions may not be possible.
That said, if tampering were proven, and I were the NFL Commissioner, my penalty would have three components.
1. "Criminals" shouldn't profit from their crimes
Bank robbers aren't allowed to keep the money they steal. So why should a team be allowed to commit tampering here and then sign the player?
Quite simply, they shouldn't.
The Niners currently hold the right to sign Crabtree for a maximum of six years. Therefore, the first part of the penalty would be that, until the end of the 2014 season, any team found guilty of tampering would be prohibited from adding Crabtree to their roster, as a free agent, by draft, or by trade, without the explicit permission of the Niners.
This would be true even if the Niners relinquish their rights to Crabtree and he re-enters the draft.
2. "Compensatory" damages for San Francisco
Tampering in this case is so damaging because it may have completely destroyed San Francisco's ability to ever bring Crabtree aboard. They may be able to salvage something in a trade, or they may be forced to relinquish his rights altogether if they can't find a willing trade partner.
This means that they will have gotten absolutely no benefit at all from that No. 10 draft pick in 2009.
Thus, to compensate the Niners for their loss, they should get another first-round draft pick next year, unless they are able to trade his rights to another team.
So, how would they get that pick?
3. "Punitive" damages against the tampering teams
Teams should not be allowed to try to poach other teams' first-round draft picks, period.
The penalty should be high enough that no team even considers the idea, so I would force teams to forfeit their next two first-round draft picks. The highest such pick in 2010 would go to San Francisco, if the Niners couldn't trade Crabtree's rights.
The penalty against the Niners in the Briggs case was the loss of their fifth-round draft pick, and a forced swap of third-round draft picks with the Bears.
So while it may not be possible to force teams to give picks to other teams, it should be possible to force a trade.
So, if the Niners can't outright be given a pick, then they should be "forced" to trade the lowest pick they have in 2010 for that additional first-rounder (I'm sure they'd lose a lot of sleep over it).
The difference between the Briggs case and this one is that Briggs was about to become a free agent. Although the Bears could have franchised him (and, in fact, they did), their "window of exclusivity" only ran for one season.
Here, by trying to drive a wedge between Crabtree and the Niners, the teams guilty of tampering may have helped deny the Niners five or even six years of Crabtree's service.
Perhaps Crabtree would have been a bust. Then again, he could have been Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, the Niners may never have a chance to find out.
So, if some other team or teams played a role in denying the Niners that chance, the punishment should be a severe one.