A classic example: Two days before the talks between owners and players blew up on March 11, Yahoo.com reported that the sides had reached a "basic compromise" on a rookie wage scale that, among other things, would have set the length of first-round contracts at 4 years and all others at 3 years. Other news outlets ran with it, including quite a few that claimed to have obtained their own "confirmation" of the compromise.
The only problem was, the story wasn't true. It was bogus. There never was an agreement or compromise or understanding or wink-and-a-nod or anything else on a rookie wage scale.
Both sides have since acknowledged that. George Atallah, the NFL Players Association's assistant executive director for external affairs, said the union, at one point, had proposed a rookie wage system that would have set contracts for players in Rounds 1 through 3 at 4 years and contracts for players in Rounds 4 through 7 at 3 years, but the owners quickly rejected it.
According to Atallah and several league executives, the proposal the owners presented on March 11, only hours before the NFLPA decertified and the league imposed a lockout, included a rookie wage scale that would have fixed all first-round contracts at 5 years and those for players taken in Rounds 2 through 7 at 4 years. Currently, most contracts signed by players in the top half of the draft are 6 years in length, with a few at 5. Most contracts beyond Round 1 are for 4 years.
"The rookie wage scale is a microcosm of what these negotiations are about," Atallah said this week. "Guaranteed upside [for the owners], eliminate the risk. Plain and simple."
Atallah is right. The rookie wage scale is indeed a microcosm of what these negotiations are about. But for another reason. It's the most glaring indication that the owners and players can't even agree on an issue that figured to be one of the easiest things to agree on in these ridiculous bargaining talks.
The NFLPA has acknowledged for a while now that the current system, which pays absurd amounts of guaranteed money to the top picks in the draft before they ever play a single NFL down, made little sense.
Kevin Mawae, president of the decertified union, long has acknowledged that. Former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, who died in August 2008, acknowledged it. In one of his last interviews before his death, Upshaw told me he would have no opposition to a rookie wage system as long as the money saved at the top of the draft was funneled to the league's veteran players.
The owners insist that's what their last rookie wage proposal would do. Take from the unproven kids and give to the proven veterans. But the players, who trust the owners about as far as they can throw them, say the owners refuse to guarantee the money saved on rookies will absolutely, positively go to veterans and retired players.
"It frustrates me, because it seems they are eliminating the risk on their side and kind of shoving it onto those young players," said Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, a member of the union's executive committee. "And they think because we aren't those young players, we'll say, 'Ah, screw those guys.' "
Foxworth said he is not in favor of a rookie wage scale that would limit those gobs of guaranteed money going to the top draft picks, even if the money was indeed funneled to veteran players.
"On this issue, I kind of speak for myself and not really as a [union] representative," he said the other night after participating in a sports-law panel discussion at Rutgers-Camden. "The number of busts that come out [of the top portion of the draft] are very low. If you really look at the numbers, the number of great players that come out of that area is pretty high.
"The responsibility really falls on the organization to hire the right scouts and general managers to make the right decisions. It seems like they're just trying to kind of get a foolproof plan, like, 'We'll draft a player, and if he stinks, we're not in for that much money. But if we do get a great player, we get him for under market value for 6 years,' which is what they are kind of proposing."
The owners shake their heads when they hear Foxworth, who participated in the negotiations and presumably saw their last proposal on March 11, suggest that their rookie wage proposal included 6-year term lengths for first-rounders.
"The league's proposal was the whole first round would sign for 5 years, which was a concession by us, and everyone else could sign for 4, which is essentially the existing system," a league executive said. "This is why it's so [bleeped] up. Even when we make a concession, they somehow perceive it as they're getting screwed."
The league vehemently disagrees with Foxworth's contention that the number of busts at the top of the draft is "very low" and that the number of great players is "pretty high."
"The truth is, 50 percent of the players in the first round don't make it," the executive said. "By that, I mean [players] who become quality starters. I'm not even talking Pro Bowlers. All of the money that went to people like the JaMarcus Russells and Vernon Gholstons should be going to players like Foxworth.
"I've heard the union say, 'Oh, they just want to try and create a system so that the busts don't get so much money. Well, that certainly is part of it. But the essence [of the rookie wage proposal] was to try and make sure the value of the top 10 picks was returned from a team perspective, competitive balance wasn't blown up by teams that had one or two first-round busts in a 3- or 4- or 5-year period, and try to get the salaries of those picks back in line with what was the original intent of the rookie pool system that everybody agreed to before buybacks and options and escalators and incentives and all of these other loopholes that were found to circumvent the rookie pool.
"The whole idea of the [original] rookie pool was to create a system so rookies did OK, but most of the money in the cap would go to the veterans." *
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