NFL coaches caught in the labor crossfire

June, 6, 2011
6/06/11
1:40
PM ET
Those unsightly, overly tight shorts seen on football coaches over the years should have a new name: amicus briefs.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, coaches did not reject those violators of style as strongly as they have attacked a legal document purportedly filed on their behalf.

The NFL Coaches Association and its executive director, Larry Kennan, are taking shot after shot over the amicus brief they filed supporting the players' position against the lockout. The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals have let it be known that their staffs, like a growing list of others, did not know about or support the filing. And as DiLune2 pointed out in the comments section of this item, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll tweeted that he didn't know of it, either.

The brief argues that the lockout inflicts "irreparable harm" on coaches, primarily assistants new to their teams, by preventing them from preparing for the upcoming season. The brief points to high turnover rates for coaches and claims that assistants are increasingly vulnerable to firing when their teams fail.

The NFLCA also filed an amicus brief against NFL owners in the landmark American Needle case, but the lockout has made this a far more sensitive time for coaches to speak up. My take and a few notes on the situation after speaking with Kennan, assistant coaches and team executives:
  • Coaches are ultimately more loyal to their employers than to the NFLCA, which is not a union. Many fear for their jobs and are not comfortable speaking up at this time, or any time. Some resent the fact that the NFLCA filed this brief without soliciting more input from coaches or at least getting ahead of the story through better public relations. Kennan said he followed standard procedure, going through his executive committee and emailing all coaches, including head coaches, with the necessary info. But quite a few have been on vacation, and some felt this was a bad time to make waves.
  • The brief struck a nerve with owners. Teams continue to release statements saying their coaches oppose the filing. Coaches would not be making these statements without pressure from their owners, in my view. The league doesn't want to fight the labor battle on more than one front. Teams think the lockout will help the league reach a more favorable agreement. In turn, they think a more favorable agreement would benefit assistant coaches by growing the NFL's portion of the revenue pie.
  • Kennan and the NFLCA have expressed fear in the past that resounding NFL victories on the antitrust front would allow owners to continue taking away some of the victories coaches have scored on the benefits front. As Kennan sees it, the league has already reached into coaches' pockets by threatening pensions and writing lockout clauses into contracts.
  • The Washington Redskins were the first team to release a statement repudiating the filing. Kennan: "Once the Redskins did this, the owners have gotten to their guys and said, 'We need this, too.' What are the coaches going to do, say no?"
  • I suspect Kennan underestimated the response this filing has generated. In retrospect, he should have finessed this story from the front end, better informing his membership. Kennan sounds undeterred, saying, "There is no reason a coach ought to come out and say he is publicly not for this because it can only be good for coaches. Ownership would like to see us go away because we have raised salaries and we create problems for them because I can speak for coaches when they can’t speak for themselves. I exist so the coaches don’t have to be heroes and fight the owner one on one. They can deny they agree with anything I have said, and it’s OK."
  • Kennan says the coaches would come out against the players if the players were striking. He says they took that stance during the 1987 strike. But it's also true that the NFLCA works out of the NFLPA offices and uses NFLPA resources. Why? Kennan says the league never offered to assist.
  • In my experience, older coaches better appreciate the significant strides assistants in particular have made in commanding bigger salaries. Veteran coaches such as Jimmy Raye, who heads the executive committee, and Howard Mudd, also an NFC West coaching alum, are among the coaches who have been most strongly aligned with the NFLCA. Younger coaches are also involved, but some of them are more likely to envision themselves rising quickly through the ranks without NFLCA support.

The fallout from this amicus brief filing will presumably diminish over time. Owners can have long memories, however, and if their emotions come into play on this issue, coaches could still pay. While it's true that a larger NFL revenue pie could benefit coaches, unbridled league power on the antitrust front could give teams more power to act unilaterally toward coaches -- for better or worse.

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