NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says fears of a looming rookie wage scale are unfounded and collegiate underclassmen should not be misled into thinking such a system will be in place by 2010 as they weigh their decisions to forgo their eligibility to enter the NFL next year.
"There will be no change in our current [rookie pool] system, at least until 2011," Goodell told ESPN on Saturday. "I've explained that to some college head coaches, athletic directors and league commissioners. Any underclassman who is hearing differently is probably hearing it from an agent or from another source who is misinformed."
Goodell met with approximately six commissioners from major conferences during the recent National Football Foundation meetings.
Goodell also has personally delivered his message to college coaches such as Florida's Urban Meyer and USC's Pete Carroll, both of whom have junior quarterbacks in Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez who are contemplating turning pro for the 2009 draft.
"We talked about it, cleared the air and it was good to hear it straight from the commissioner," Carroll said Saturday. "That's a huge statement now that he's on the record. Obviously, I'm in total support of it and hopefully now a lot of good college kids getting bad information will be able to read it, see it, and trust it."
Said Meyer, "That's good, but it's something I'm not worrying about right now because we're getting ready to play [for the national championship] in two weeks. I'll deal with it after the game."
Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to petition the NFL for draft eligibility. A player must be three years removed from high school to qualify and a record number of underclassmen have requested an evaluation from the league's designated advisory committee to acquire a projection on their draft status.
Any junior who decides to stay in school could next enter the draft in 2010, the last year of the current collective bargaining agreement between NFL owners and the NFL Players Association.
"We do expect change at some point after 2010 -- in order to shift more money to proven vets -- but it will not impact this year's eligible underclassmen that are scheduled to enter the 2010 draft after their senior seasons," Goodell said.
"In any case, we believe underclassmen should always stay in school and fulfill their eligibility. History shows that underclassmen that stay in school tend to do better as NFL players, especially quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco all played four years of college football. And, there is a long list of college players who came out early and did not do well in the NFL."
The commissioner acknowledged that "every case is different. Nobody knows the future but I'd point out that there are very few career-ending injuries in this era. The more exposure these players get from big-time college football, to display and refine their skills, is a significant benefit. And, really just their development as men and more exposure in their own college education is part of that maturity process that gives them a better chance for a longer, more productive career."
Goodell noted: "That's why we fought hard and won a legal battle on our policy in the Maurice Clarett case. A lot of people didn't think we'd win but the courts upheld our three-year eligibility rule and that was for the good of everybody."
Some agents believe that a rookie wage scale could be collectively bargained for 2010 in an extension of the current agreement once the NFLPA elects a new executive director in March. A search committee recently reduced its list of potential successors to Gene Upshaw, who died suddenly before the 2008 season, to seven candidates.
However, league sources who include owners and team executives say that owners have no desire to extend the current CBA by another year or two, even if the NFLPA offered a rookie wage scale to otherwise keep the current system in place with minor modifications.
As one source explained, the top rookie wages are a source of frustration for owners but it is not atop the list of primary issues that they want to solve with a new CBA. Consequently, the consensus is that the complexities and demands of both the owners and players union will not result in a new labor deal at least until 2011. Sources on both sides have speculated there could be an owners' lockout of the players in 2011 unless the CBA is radically altered.
One source said that even in the unlikelihood that a new labor agreement was reached in 2010, it is anticipated that any rookie wage scale would be deferred until 2011, at the earliest.
Goodell would not detail any specifics of such a concept, saying, "We have had no negotiations with the union yet on a new rookie wage scale."
"But," the commissioner added, "many veterans tell us the system needs to be modified. The current rookie pool system is designed to limit rookie pay but it does not work very well. Change is coming in this area. We do not know exactly when after 2010 or exactly what it will consist of, but we are committed to a change that will compensate top rookies very well but will make more money available to proven vets, including low-round draft choices and rookie free agents that outperform their contracts."
Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.