To avoid an NFL lockout, let's stop breaking the bank with rookies

By Mark Murphy
Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:00 PM

As the college football bowl season kicks off, many players will no doubt begin focusing on the possibility of playing in the National Football League. I was there once. Although not drafted out of Colgate in 1977, I was offered a rookie free agent contract with the Redskins that year - for $21,000 plus a $2,000 signing bonus. I decided to put my whopping $14,000 offer from General Electric on hold and give the NFL a shot.

I was lucky enough to make the team and still have vivid memories of my rookie year, as well as my full eight-year career with the Redskins, especially taking part in two Super Bowls and being one of the few Redskins to play for both coaches George Allen and Joe Gibbs.

During those years, I spent a good deal of time working with the NFL Players Association on behalf of my fellow players. We felt we had to change a system that was not working for us. The rallying cry was "We Are the Game." We sought a guaranteed percentage of revenue and went on strike twice in the 1980s to force changes. We didn't achieve all our objectives, but we did lay the foundation for a system that now provides players with approximately $4.5 billion a year in compensation and benefits - almost 60 percent of total league revenue as defined in the collective bargaining agreement.

Today, as the president of an NFL franchise, the Green Bay Packers, I am on the other side of the bargaining table, but I understand the players' views and am committed to reaching a new labor agreement that is fair to players, teams and fans. The NFL teams are united around improving a system that is not working as well as it should be. A balanced agreement is essential so we can improve the experience for fans and ensure that all 32 teams remain competitive.

Nobody wants a lockout or work stoppage of any kind, but we must have an agreement that addresses the concerns of NFL ownership and management. The current labor agreement expires in March, and one of management's biggest concerns is the exorbitant and inefficient spending on rookies.

Rookies should be paid fairly, but they should not be among the highest-paid NFL players before playing a single down. Teams don't like it. Veterans and retired players don't like it. Fans don't like it. And the players' union shouldn't like it, either.

Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated published a list of the 50 highest-paid American athletes. Five 2009 NFL rookies were on the list, averaging nearly $21 million in total income for their rookie year. Every other athlete on the list was a proven veteran.

Our current system of paying rookies doesn't make sense. In 2009, 256 drafted rookies signed contracts calling for $1.2 billion in compensation with $585 million guaranteed. This year the numbers increased to $1.27 billion, including $660 million guaranteed, for 255 draft choices.

No other business operates this way, and no other union gives its entry-level hires such privileges. The system is so bad that some teams no longer want picks in the top part of the first round of the NFL draft. The cost is too high, especially if a player taken that early turns out to be a bust.

Our management negotiating team has proposed to the NFLPA a common-sense wage scale for incoming players. It is similar in some respects to the fixed entry-level scale for players in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, and is a critical component of a solution that would avoid a work stoppage.

We estimate that a rookie wage scale would free up more than a billion dollars during the term of a five-year agreement, and more if it is a longer deal. That money would be redistributed to veterans and retired players. The new entry-level system would end rookie holdouts that damage relations between the player and team, and would eliminate the complexities in the current rookie contracts.

Under our proposal, mandatory contract lengths would be five years for first-round players (six years for quarterbacks), four years for second- through seventh-round picks and three years for undrafted rookies (as I was). Players and teams would be able to renegotiate and extend the initial contracts of first-round rookies after year three, and after year two for all other rookies.

Under the proposal, the first pick in the draft would sign a five-year contract and receive a $5.34 million signing bonus and $1.5 million salary his rookie year, even if he does not play a single down. In years two and three, his salary would be set at $1.7 million and $1.9 million, respectively. His fourth- and fifth-year salaries would rise to $2.3 million and $2.9 million for a total package of $15.6 million. (If he is a quarterback, he would be paid $4.3 million in year six.) The first pick would still be paid well, but at a much more reasonable level than under the current system.

By eliminating individual negotiations, a rookie wage scale should have the added benefit of reducing the influence of agents on our college campuses. Having served as a college athletic director for 16 years at Colgate and Northwestern, I know firsthand that even one unscrupulous agent who chooses to break NCAA rules can cause serious problems for a college and its players, resulting in the forfeiture of games, championships, awards and scholarships.

I loved my time playing in the NFL with the Redskins, and I'm also excited to be back in the NFL in my current role with the Packers. The tremendous passion of our fans is what makes working in the NFL so special. We are prepared and committed to work hard to reach an agreement with the players without a lockout next season. A rookie wage scale will be a key factor in striking a deal with the union, along with a revised year-round football calendar - with 18 regular-season games, two preseason games, fewer off-season practices, and additional steps to enhance player safety.

I'm confident that this common-sense approach will allow us to reach an agreement that works for players, teams and fans.

Mark Murphy is president and chief executive of the Green Bay Packers and a member of the NFL owners' bargaining committee. From 1977 to 1984, he was a safety for the Washington Redskins.

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