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League, union sharply disagree on rookie wage scale, too

DeMaurice Smith, Kevin Mawae

DeMaurice Smith, right, Executive Director of the NFL Players Association responds to a question during a news conference as the association’s president Kevin Mawae, left, and team representatives listen in during a news conference Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)


The discrepancy between the league’s and the union’s view of the size of the slice of the pie that the players collectively receive isn’t the only issue on which the NFL and the NFLPA disagree. The two sides also disagree on the rookie wage scale.

Or, as the union now calls it, the “veteran wage scale.”

Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal reported earlier today that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith explained in a memo to certain players that the rookie wage scale proposed by management would affect players with three to five years of experience, or as Smith put it “the core of our membership.”

The league proposed a system including five-year deals for first-round picks and four-year contracts for players drafted in all other rounds; the union wants maximum deals of four years in rounds one through three and three years in rounds four through seven.

“This wage scale would have a very dramatic effect on league salaries when you consider the number of players that would be subject to its terms,” Smith explained in a memo to the members of the Executive Committee and the various player representatives, claiming that 60 percent of the league would fall under the terms of the league’s proposal.

But here’s the reality. Roughly 60 percent of the league already falls under an unofficial rookie wage scale, which after round one pays players reasonable amounts about which the NFL rarely complains -- especially when a mid-round pick becomes a star. The issue here is the amount of money paid at the top of the draft, and that’s where the focus should be.

It’s not just about eliminating the windfall for unproven rookies, but also about redirecting that money to rookies who outperform their salaries and finding ways to funnel money that is wasted on busts like JaMarcus Russell to the retired players who made the game what it is.

There can be no doubt that it’s in the best interests of the league, the teams, and the current members of the union to ensure that unproven players don’t continue to get inflated contracts, the growth of which continues to outpace the increase in pay for veteran players. The union, in our view, is resisting much-needed change simply in the hopes of scoring a concessions from the league, and possibly because powerful agencies that pocket three percent of the first-round rookie contracts don’t want to lose their cut of the windfall.

Employed at one of those firms as an agent is the son of NFLPA chief outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler. (Just sayin’.)

This should be the easiest problem for the two sides to fix. In a cap-driven system, a rookie wage scale does not undermine in any way the total money available to players. Indeed, every dollar taken away from unproven rookies is one more dollar available to proven players. By ensuring that tens of millions won’t go to players who never contribute to the betterment of the game and by also ensuring that rookies who achieve greatness immediately get compensated for their efforts now, the pie can be carved up fairly for everyone.

But first the union has to ignore any and all self-interests clouding the process and commit to taking actions aimed for the good of the game, and for the good of the current members of the union.