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Sides claim fair stake in the franchise

JEFF PASH Seeking balance JEFF PASH
Seeking balance
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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DALLAS — Both sides of the NFL’s looming labor fight — the league and the players’ union — were heard the past two days at the site of the Super Bowl.

Commissioner Roger Goodell will get the last word before the season concludes when he presents his state-of-the-league address this morning.

What’s become increasingly clear in listening to NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash on Wednesday and Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith yesterday is that the sides remain far apart on a collective bargaining agreement to replace the current one, which expires March 4.

While there are several issues in play — an 18-game schedule, a rookie wage scale, increased player health care benefits — the biggest fight is over who gets what percentage of the league’s revenue. The owners want more back from the players, who feel they are getting the correct share.

“We are not looking to replace one unbalanced and one-sided agreement with another,’’ Pash said. “We are not looking to swing the pendulum as far to our side as it’s now swung toward the players.

“We have said to the players, ‘We do not want you to feel about the agreement four or five years from now what our clubs now feel about this agreement.’ ’’

What’s more relevant and timely is the fight over the franchise and transition tags, which could directly affect some of the best players, including Patriots All-Pro guard Logan Mankins. The tags allowed teams to keep players from jumping teams when free agency became part of the NFL in 1993.

A player who is given a franchise tag is guaranteed the average of the top five salaries at his position, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary. With an exclusive franchise tag, no other teams can negotiate with the player. A player could negotiate with other teams under the nonexclusive tag, but if he does go elsewhere, the signing team must surrender two first-round picks.

A transition tag calls for the player to be given the average of the top 10 salaries at his position, but the team has only right of first refusal with no compensation.

With uncertainty surrounding the next collective bargaining agreement, many teams have held off signing unrestricted free agents. Mankins falls into this category; he is without a contract for the 2011 season.

In a normal year, the Patriots would place the franchise tag on Mankins with the intention of working out a contract extension. The Patriots could also trade him, as they did with quarterback Matt Cassel.

With the CBA set to expire, this is not a normal year by any stretch.

Still, the league has informed teams that they are free to utilize the tags as before.

“The CBA hasn’t expired, and the CBA has the right to franchise players, so we are telling clubs that you have the right to franchise players and then, depending on what the new agreement says, that will take into account,’’ said NFL senior vice president and general counsel Peter Rucco. “Neither party is proposing to get rid of the franchise tag.

“But as far as we’re concerned, clubs have the right to tag players, the agreement continues with the same terms and conditions that it has been; it isn’t expiring until March 4 and the window to franchise players is 14 days. From our standpoint, you have every right to franchise players.’’

The NFLPA disagreed, and, in response, sent out a memo yesterday to agents vowing to legally challenge any tags applied as of Feb. 10.

“We would challenge any attempt to franchise a player and to make him the victim of it by a contract that he signs,’’ said NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen.

“There’s no franchise tag without a new CBA, it’s as simple as that. We have a lot of things in the agreement that say, ‘In each year covered by this agreement . . . ’ But when the agreement ends, those rights don’t survive. It’s very simple. This isn’t rocket science.

“The collective bargaining agreement clearly says that they get one franchise player for every season covered by this agreement. They already had it for 2010; 2011 isn’t covered by this agreement, so that means the right to have it ends.

“We don’t have a deal for 2011; that means they don’t have a right to do it for 2011. It’s as simple as that. But if they want to get together and say we’re going to do it anyhow, we can’t stop them from doing that. But the agreement doesn’t allow it.’’

That may be up to a judge to decide. And it could very well come to that.

The Patriots will likely place the franchise tag on Mankins to make sure, as far as the league office is concerned, they retain him pending a new CBA.

Then the ball would be in Mankins’s court, with the union’s backing. If he decides to legally challenge the tag — Mankins hasn’t exactly been thrilled with the Patriots on the contract front — a judge could declare him a free agent immediately.

Among those who also could be free to sign with any team: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey.

Of course, the owners could come to agreement among themselves not to sign those players. And that would bring additional collusion charges from the union (it already has a claim pending). Even Berthelsen conceded the NFL had little choice but to enact the franchise tag.

“They do have a problem in you don’t franchise a player unless his contract is expired,’’ Berthelsen said. “So if you were to wait until after it expires and then try to assert some rights, it can be too late.

“But the better way to deal with the issue is to come and make an agreement with us. Not to just kind of create their own perfect world for themselves.’’

At this point, the league and the union can’t even work together on a simple mechanism like the franchise tag.

It makes you wonder just how long it will take them to reach agreement on a new CBA.

When Super Bowl XLV concludes, the clock starts ticking.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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