Free agency 'moratorium' proposal gaining momentum

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the word "moratorium" is tossed around here, and it is a consequent of shady dealings between NFL clubs and agents over free-agency, people smile. Or laugh. Or cringe.

Sometimes they do all three.

And nearly all agree –- changes are likely in the free agency signing period.

It is a prickly topic here at the NFL Annual Meeting. The consensus is that discussions on the matter will happen here, with potential changes enacted at the NFL Spring Meeting, May 20-21 in Atlanta.

The change is the moratorium, a dead period of five to seven days before the start of free agency during which teams can talk only to agents. No team discussions with others' free agents. No contracts negotiated. No face-to-face visits with others' free agents.

Just agent/club chatter.

The moratorium would not apply to teams seeking to re-sign their own free agents.

Of course, there are rules currently in place that deny teams from negotiating free-agent contracts with new players before the start of free agency. And breaking them is essentially tampering.

Yet, every year when free agency begins at midnight on or near March 1, free agents sign multi-year, complicated deals with new teams only minutes into the signing period.

How does that happen?

How can it happen without some sort of tampering having occurred prior?

Both clubs and agents say that some of these free-agent deals are formulated at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Some said they happen even earlier, at the Senior Bowl the month prior.

"It has sort of been a wink-wink thing that we want to change and give everybody a chance in a particular framework to have intelligent discussions that help set the table immediately prior to free agency," said Ray Anderson, executive vice president of league operations. "Some teams have followed the rule. Some have not. Now, everyone, if this passes, will have the same window of opportunity and a clearer understanding of the expectations and the fact that penalties will follow for failing to meet them."

The competition committee is earnestly requesting that this moratorium be vigorously enforced, said Rich McKay, one of that committee's chairman.

This is one more step by Commissioner Roger Goodell to clean up the league and make integrity in the game a central issue. Goodell in this manner is becoming more than a CEO. He is a true trustee of the game. He has a big broom and is using it in sweeping ways. His committees are spreading the message -- get on board.

But how does the league police this moratorium?

If a team wants to cheat in getting an early jump in free agency, it can. If an agent wants to do the same, he can. If they work together, they can.

That is why if this change happens, expect the penalties for those found guilty of tampering in this area to be extremely severe. Granted, in several ways, this effort will not completely police teams. It can, however, provide a heck of a deterrent.

And let us be clear: The teams need policing nearly as much as the agents.

The agents are labeled as the culprits, but the clubs often initiate these early free-agency conversations.

"There are good agents and bad agents, just like there are good owners and bad owners," said Jeff Littmann, the Buffalo Bills treasurer. "Everyone can do a better job of policing themselves prior to free agency."

If the committee and Goodell have their way, everyone must improve.

"I basically see this as an agenda to help the club who has the player about to become a free agent explore more ways to keep him, if it wants," agent Frank Bauer said. "It can work. They get the chance to clearly see what it is going to take to keep the player. We get the chance to clearly estimate his market value."

Other agents agreed.

Drew Rosenhaus said: "I like it. I like the fact it allows us to start working on free agency earlier. This business has a way of weeding out bad agents. It's very competitive. And if you are not doing the job, the player moves on to another agent. And if the teams want to make all of us the bad guys, that's OK, too. We'll take the shots for our players."

It is always a good move when procedures are legitimized, when backroom deals are made in the light and in the proper time frame. Goodell in his address to reporters on Monday morning said he senses strong membership support for this moratorium.

Good news for the league is that agents appear to be firmly on board, too.

"Our very public reputations go up and down, but our most important responsibility is the trust of our players," agent Frank Murtha said. "When I go into prospective players' homes and I don't look like a monster and I actually have all of my teeth, they are amazed. People hear and think the worst sometimes of agents. It is a mixed bag, and a rule like this helps everyone -- clubs and agents -- get it together."

Thomas George is a senior columnist for NFL.com.

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