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NFLPA states its case at NFL-sponsored rookie symposium

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Messages come at them with the fury of an all-out blitz. Warning after warning. Cautionary tale after cautionary tale.

The 252 players from the 2008 NFL Draft class attending the league's annual rookie symposium hear it all -- about guns, about gang-related violence, about substance abuse, about personal finances, about identity theft and even about distributing their two free tickets to each game.

When choosing between your mother and your best friend growing up for one of those prime seats, what do you do? Tashard Choice, a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, said it was simple: Mom always comes before a homeboy.

But among the topics this group of rookies heard was one that has not been on any agenda since the rookie symposium began in 1997: The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

"You guys are coming in to a time of this era where none of us has ever been before," Tennessee Titans center and NFLPA president Kevin Mawae told the audience of first-year players gathered in a large banquet room at the La Costa Resort & Spa. "I came into the league with a collective bargaining agreement. We've had labor peace for the last 14 years."

For now, the league is assured of labor peace for at least three more seasons. What happens after that is anyone's guess, because NFL owners decided in May that the current CBA would expire after the 2010 season.

Although the NFL sponsors the rookie symposium, Mawae and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw were invited to speak on behalf of the union. And Upshaw used his time on stage to address comments that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made about rookie salaries last week during an appearance in Chautauqua, N.Y. Goodell said it was "ridiculous" for rookies to receive lucrative contracts before they even set foot on an NFL field and that the issue needs to be addressed in upcoming labor talks.

After saying "the commissioner and I agree on a lot of things," Upshaw pulled out a newspaper clipping that contained Goodell's comments and pointed out there are "some things" on which he and the commissioner disagree.

"I think it's ridiculous that you would make such a comment," Upshaw told the rookies. "We're not in the position to try to take money from anyone. As a union, our job is to make sure you get as much as you're entitled to, as much as that is fair and not be restricted by anything else. We have never agreed to such a system. I don't see us agreeing to such a system in the future.

"In three years, you guys will be asked to make some very, very hard decisions that other players have made before you that will deal with the one issue that seems to be getting a lot of attention right now -- a wage scale for rookies. You don't have one. The group behind you, the next group, will not have one. And the group after that won't have one.

"But we will be in negotiations about those issues. I don't want you to forget that. I also want to remind you that we, at the NFL Players Association, represent you. Roger Goodell represents the 32 owners."

NFL executive Mike Haynes later reminded the audience of the league's long run of labor peace.

"We have always been able to work out a contract with the NFL Players Association, at least in the last 10 or so years," Haynes said. "So we're hoping that even this situation will get resolved amicably."

Mawae also pointed out that the NFL and the NFLPA have had a strong working relationship through the years.

"The NFLPA works in partnership with the NFL to keep this thing going," Mawae said. "We work together to make the NFL the most popular sport in America, and we've done that."

Mawae explained to the rookies that, if no new extension to the collective bargaining agreement is reached, 2010 would be an uncapped season. Although teams would have no spending limit on salaries, players who previously would have been unrestricted free agents after their fourth season in the league would have to wait until after their sixth season for such a designation.

In addition, Mawae raised the possibility of owners locking out the players in 2011, and that that would mean they would not receive salaries or benefits.

"The NFL, guys, is a $7.6-billion business," Mawae said. He paused for a moment and then repeated the figure, with emphasis on "billion."

"It's not a game anymore," Mawae said. "It's a job, it's a business. Without you, there is no NFL. Without you, there are no games played on Sundays. And without you, $7.6 billion is zero."

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