DALLAS -- Go ahead and add franchise tags to the lengthy list of issues over which the NFL and its players disagree.
The league is telling teams they can place that designation on players whose contracts are expiring, even if there's no new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that ends March 3. The union sent a letter to agents Thursday to tell them the NFL is wrong about that.
"Our position is that you can franchise anyone you want, by whatever date you want, but if there is no CBA, the franchise tags will be meaningless," NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
Arguing that the 2011 season doesn't fall under the current CBA, the union said in a statement that the "NFL has no valid basis for claiming the right to franchise players in 2011."
In response, league spokesman Greg Aiello said via e-mail to The Associated Press: "We are still operating under the current agreement. ... Franchise tags are always made before the start of the next league year. This is consistent with past seasons."
The franchise tag allows each team to prevent one player from becoming an unrestricted free agent by offering him a one-year contract that's worth 120 percent of his salary from the season before or the average of the five highest-paid players at his position, whichever is greater. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is among the players who would be affected this offseason.
The dispute is only one of many between owners and players
"The disagreements that we have are fundamental," Smith said.
The main issues include how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues; the owners' push to expand the regular season to 18 games; a rookie wage scale and benefits for retired players.
The two sides are scheduled to have their first formal bargaining session since November on Saturday.
"I don't think it's a good idea to set any expectation, other than the fact that we intend to sit down and continue to have a discussion that should guarantee football for our fans, football for our players," Smith said.
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah described Saturday's meeting as "a window of opportunity" and added: "We intend to go in there with open minds and open ears."
Speaking to the media one day before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's annual pre-Super Bowl news conference, Smith said the two men have "a great relationship."
Smith also repeated what he has said for quite some time: The union is convinced the NFL has been planning since at least 2007 to lock out players this year. The old CBA was agreed to in 2006 and was supposed to last through 2012, but the owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.
"I believe that the league has taken steps to effectuate a lockout for a very long time," Smith said. "The players are committed to making sure that does not happen."
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Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press