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The Real Story Behind The Rookie Wage Scale

This article originally appeared on Yahoo's Shutdown Corner. It was posted with permission from it's author, Doug Farrar.

Over the last year, the dialogue between the NFL and the Players' Association has featured enough "he said, she said" to fill out the script of a really bad Telemundo soap opera. But due to the public uproar surrounding the rookie contracts of recent first overall picks JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford, and Sam Bradford, both parties involved in current negotiations understand that some sort of rookie wage scale must be put into effect.

As with everything else under the sun, the league and the NFLPA have not been able to agree on the parameters of such a scale. The NFLPA put forth the idea of a "Proven Performance Plan", which would lower the length of rookie deals to three years from the old four years, and the current six years under the post-CBA sky.

NFL general counsel Jeff Pash went on the "Mike and Mike in the Morning" radio show on July 22nd, one day after NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith did the same thing. One of the things Pash discussed was the notion that the NFLPA was unbending on this issue.

You really haven't gotten the full story. What happened is we went to the union and we said we have a number of issues that are tough issues that we have to work out, but we think there is one issue that we have a common purpose on, and that is addressing the rookie system.

We proposed to put the new rookie system in for 2010 with this year's draft class, and we would commit that the first $100 million of savings from the rookie system would be used for retiree benefits. We'll put them into pensions; we'll put them into disability (assistance); and we'll improve the ADA plan. We were open to anything the retirees think would be helpful to them.

We thought that it was a perfectly logical place to start. The union came back to us and they said, ‘Well, first of all, we don't like the (rookie) wage scale, so we reject that. Second of all, we want money to go to proven veterans.' And we said, ‘That's fine. Within the context of an overall economic system, we're on board with that.'

Then they added two other conditions, which I don't think you heard about yesterday (when Smith went on the show). One was that rookies would be limited to signing a three-year contract, and the second was that at the end of the three-year contract, they would be unrestricted free agents.

Now that completely undermined the whole system of competitive balance in this league ... I can't believe that the union would seriously think we would entertain something like that.

But that wasn't the end of the story, and Pash should have known that when he went on the radio. Yahoo! Sports has obtained a document - a correspondence from Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and President Kevin Mawae to the NFL's Management Council and Commission Roger Goodell dated February 18, 2010. In part, the letter said this:

The players are also still willing to restrain the compensation committed to rookie players before they have proven their performance, by limiting rookie contract length. The NFLPA previously proposed that rookie contracts be limited to three-year terms, which would have substantially restricted rookie pay. In response to the expressed concern of the owners that such a contract length is too short, the NFLPA is prepared to stand by its proposal, but to adjust the maximum permitted rookie contract to four years if that's what the owners prefer.

And these are the two things you don't hear about when the league discusses where the two sides are with the rookie scale. First, the NFLPA did not reject the wage scale. Instead they proposed a Proven Performance Plan, which is how the three-year idea first came up.

The main source of unproven players being paid salary out of sync with their long-term performance is long-term rookie contracts negotiated by high first-round draft picks, with large signing bonuses, before those players step on the field. At the same time, rookie players drafted in lower rounds, or undrafted players, are locked into multi-year bargain contracts which often prove to be unfair when the players become major contributors to their teams.

The NFLPA has proposed that this issue be addressed by shortening rookie contracts to a maximum of three years, which should result in NFL clubs saving more than $200 million in committed dollars devoted to high first-round picks each year.

The NFLPA's idea was to take $150 million of that $200 million, and set it aside for incentives that would go to deserving players -- when Chris Johnson rushed for over 2,000 in a season and stands to make a base salary of $550,000 the next year, he doesn't have to hold out to get what he deserves. The other $50 million would go to benefit retired players. Now, the beneficial part of the three-year contract idea that the owners have completely failed to grasp is that teams would be able to bail out of bad contracts with expensive draft busts - essentially protecting the owners from themselves. The difference between the NFL's idea of what to do with the extra money not spent on high draft picks is the difference between a handshake and a contract, and there's very little trust on either side these days.

Yahoo! Sports has also learned that the league has not responded in any way to the February proposal. When the two sides met again in May, the NFL switched gears and started pounding the idea of the 18-game schedule, leaving the idea of a rookie scale ignored. At the same time,, a site put up by the NFL to keep fans appraised of current matters, recently transcribed a radio interview with Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian in which Polian insisted that "we need to change the rookie system," as if the NFLPA hadn't been trying to put forth reasonable alternatives for the last six months.

Both sides are pretty clear in their intentions. The NFL wants to reduce player costs and increase revenue. The NFLPA wants to uphold its obligations to the players. The only way that both sides will be able to accomplish their goals at the same time is for each negotiation to be based on an open and frank exchange of ideas. Misrepresenting proposals, and using the court of public opinion to put trumped-up concepts on trial, only distorts the truth and makes actual negotiations nearly impossible.

If the NFL misrepresents and refuses to respond to one simple piece of a small percentage of the issues at hand, how can the league and the union be expected to put together the kind of extended labor peace that would not only save the 2011 season from a lockout, but also continue a mutual success that has benefited all parties involved - and seems to be more in the rear view every day.