NFL stumbling blocks: free agency, rookie wages

Published on July 10, 2011 by     AP News

A rookie wage scale and free agency for veterans appear to be the biggest stumbling blocks to ending the NFL lockout.

Several people with knowledge of the talks tell The Associated Press that such key issues as splitting total revenues – the major reason for the dispute – the salary cap, fewer offseason workouts and the length of a new collective bargaining agreement are close to being completed.

The people spoke anonymously because details are supposed to remain private.

Owners and players are preparing to meet again this week after two days of long negotiations last week. The sticky topics include limits on rookie salaries and signing bonuses. Another is the number of transition tags for free agents, with right of first refusal.

With training camps scheduled to open in less than two weeks for some teams, time is growing short to reach an agreement to end the nearly four-month lockout without a disruption to the preseason. With court-appointed mediator Arthur Boylan on vacation this week, the two sides plan to negotiate in New York, where last Friday talks were slowed by differences over the rookie wage scale and guidelines for unrestricted free agents.

NFL owners have long sought to restrict the huge bonuses and salaries paid to unproven rookies, particularly those selected high in the draft. Quarterback Sam Bradford, the 2010 top overall pick by St. Louis, signed a six-year, $78 million contract that included a record $50 million in guaranteed money.

The NFLPA insists that money diverted from the rookies go to veteran players; some also would go for retired players’ benefits. The main disagreement right now is how deep into the first round the rookie wage scale would apply, perhaps eight picks, perhaps twice that many. Some owners also are seeking longer contracts for rookies.

In addition, the owners are pushing for more restrictions in free agency, which the players “vehemently oppose,” one of the people familiar with the negotiations said.

“Maybe for one year there might be an extended right of first refusal as a compromise,” the person said.

Would either side hold up a deal over that, especially with the possibility of lost exhibition games no longer remote? NFL revenues would be reduced by upward of $60 million for one weekend of canceled preseason games. The first full weekend of exhibition play is Aug. 11-15; the Hall of Fame game between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams is Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio.

Who pays how much to a so-called “legacy fund” to help retired players has become somewhat contentious. Originally, the funding was to be 50-50 between the owners and the players. There has been no agreement yet on that breakdown.

Whenever a deal is struck, it will be anywhere from six to 10 years. It also will include mechanisms for ending the CBA early, as happened with the 2006 agreement that the owners opted out of in 2008, leading to no salary cap in 2010 and, ultimately, to the lockout.

A topic on which there remains little disagreement is the salary cap. Some owners are not thrilled with a salary floor that requires teams spend up to 90 percent of the cap in cash on players’ salaries each year, but that is not expected to be a significant hurdle.

Players would receive around 48 percent of all league revenues, which reached $9.3 billion last year, and the owners have dropped their demand for money off the top before splitting income with the players. There still will be some stadium credits for teams that recently financed new homes or are planning to do so.

An 18-game regular season still is favored by the owners, but has been set aside for now.

Reducing offseason workouts and minicamps, and the parameters for drug testing are close to being resolved and not seen as major roadblocks.

Boylan has ordered the two sides to meet before him in Minneapolis on July 19. He also made it clear that both sides should continue their own sessions in the interim “in an effort to define and narrow the differences between their respective settlement positions.”

He also ordered lawyers from both sides to be ready to meet with him on the evening of July 18 for an “in-person agenda-setting session” that presumably would set the stage for productive talks the following day.

The owners have a labor meeting scheduled for July 21 in Atlanta.

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