TYSONS CORNER, Va. — The NFL Players Assn. publicly dropped its demand for unfettered free agency Saturday and unveiled an apparent compromise that retains the hallmarks of the current system while allowing player movement between teams.
Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the union, said the plan, proposed to management earlier this week, would continue a club's right of first refusal and compensation in the form of draft choices for lost players--the foundation of the current system.
Jim Conway, Management Council general counsel, said: "This is a pretty head-on assault on the system as it is now" and claimed it would create "a bidding war" between owners for players.
The proposal was made public only a few hours after Conway revived unfettered free agency as "the No. 1 stumbling block" to ending the 19-day National Football League strike, a charge Allen dismissed as "a smokescreen" to divert attention from management's proposed pension changes.
The two sides met again Saturday on the fifth straight day of contract talks, then adjourned, with Gene Upshaw, union executive director, and Jack Donlan, Management Council executive director, agreeing to meet again today.
"We think this is a reasonable compromise because what we have done with free agency is we've addressed that issue on their terms, on their turf, using the existing system, using the very structure that's in place now," Allen said.
The union's opening contract offer April 20 demanded unrestricted free agency--a player's ability to sell his services to other teams upon expiration of his contract--for all players, scrapping compensation and first refusal. The next plan proposed unrestricted free agency for players with at least four years' experience.
Under the latest proposal, a club can retain its ability to match other teams' offers for a free agent with a guarantee of a 20% salary increase and a one-year guaranteed contract. A player can shop himself around the league until May 15, with the original team retaining his services by simply matching any offer.
Currently, only 4% of the contracts in the league are guaranteed. The union plan would greatly increase the percentage. With a guaranteed contract, a player is paid the full sum of his salary even if he is cut from the team.
If a player signs with another team, the team losing him would be compensated with draft choices from the team signing the player.
Compensation would be decreased from current levels under which a player with an average salary still requires compensation of a first-round draft pick, Allen said. Another compensation plan, the "sandwich plan," would not take draft choices away from teams signing players, but would add picks to the 12-round draft.
Despite the union's claim that no single issue, including free agency, will hold up an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, Conway said: "The unfettered free agency demand that we saw in April remains unequivocally the No. 1 stumbling block in these negotiations. If there has been a change in the association's position on that issue, it hasn't been communicated to us."
Donlan proposed giving management much greater control over the pension fund, with a guarantee of a certain level of pension benefits, but taking away any union oversight in investments of pension fund money. The plan would allow the owners to retain any interest generated by the fund for their own use rather than player benefits.
In this regard, the union's Allen said: "We think that the reason that Jim Conway is now raising this issue (of free agency) is that in the last two days we have exposed what we were concerned about from the beginning and that is that the real management target has been the pension plan.
"And because we have appeared to have been making some progress in making that point, they're coming back with this smokescreen that is total nonesense, that our position on free agency is somehow holding up these talks."