When it comes to a potential NFL lockout, the common fan reaction is that it is a fight between billionaires (NFL owners) and millionaires (the players).
But there are some forgotten and powerless elements caught in the crossfire, and they are one week away from taking unfriendly fire through no fault of their own. NFL coaches could be the first to feel the pinch of the labor impasse.
Players collect their base salary throughout the 17 weeks of the regular season, but coaches are paid year-round, making them one of the first people who could feel the sting of a potential lockout. Larry Kennan, the director of the NFL Coaches Association, estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the coaches have lockout clauses inserted into their contract.
“We want to be treated with the same respect that we give to the game,” Kennan said.
The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers are among the teams that treat their coaches with that respect, Kennan said. He said it was “apropos” that those teams made the Super Bowl and that it was “business as usual” for the Packers and Steelers amid the turmoil.
Kennan said teams are addressing the lockout issue with their coaches in different manners. Some plan to scale back coaching salaries at the start of a lockout, other coaches will have their salary reduced by 25 percent 30 days after the start of a lockout and other teams won’t implement salary reductions until 60 days or more after the anticipated lockout on March 4. In some cases, the lost salary could be recouped, but some teams are even considering terminating the contracts of assistant coaches when a lockout starts, Kennan said.
To hear Kennan tell it, the recent treatment of NFL coaches would indicate that the respect is eroding, at least when looking at the financial pullbacks over the years. The insertion of lockout clauses in coaching contracts, which started about three years ago, is just one of the issues.
In 2001, coaches had the Rule of 75 implemented as one of their benefits, meaning that a coach could retire with full benefits if he was working in the league at age 58 and his age and years of service totaled 75.
“That’s a huge benefit for coaches because most guys get fired in their late 50s and have trouble getting another job with the league. That’s not all of them, but that’s most of them,” said Kennan, who said that 12 teams opted out of that benefit.
While Kennan said that coaching salaries have risen 20 percent faster than other salaries in the league, “a lot has been taken away, including the pensions, and we’re angry about it.”
In 2004, at the owners meetings they took away the ability of assistant coaches to take a promotion with another team without the owners granting permission. Just this year, two position coaches – Mike Tice of the Bears and Bill Callahan of the New York Jets – couldn’t talk to teams interested in making them coordinators because their owners denied permission for them to talk to the interested team. In 2009, Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements was barred from talking to the Bears about their offensive coordinator vacancy.
In March 2009, owners voted to make coaching pensions non-mandatory. Since then, 12 teams have opted out of the pensions for coaches, which has been in effect for decades.
“It was a total shock to us that it happened. They had a Sunday night meeting with the head coaches, telling them that they needed them to be with the owners in this fight with the players and then the next morning (owners) voted to make non-mandatory the pension,” Kennan said. “It shocked the head coaches. I’ve never seen the head coaches (that angry) at that point in time. They were highly incensed that they hadn’t even been told about it.”
A few months after the NFL made that move, Jimmy Raye, who was on the executive committee for the NFL Coaches Association, met with Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league executives to try to get some answers about the coaches’ situation in the lockout.
“This is saying it kindly: (Raye) got stonewalled and stonewalled and never did get any answers out of that,” Kennan said. “So, that was one more thing that highly incensed coaches.”
Ironically, Kennan said Goodell was a coach’s liaison to the commissioner in 1998, when coaches were granted the same health insurance across the board with an NFL flex plan.
“It was a big deal to us, because portability is important to us,” he said. “We move city to city and our families stay behind. We need to be in the same plan, and over time that’s all kind of changed and everybody has our own plan again.”
Kennan said about 20 to 22 teams are treating their coaches “very well,” but the difference in attitudes among the teams has the coaches association investigating the possibilities of unionizing after a collective bargaining agreement is reached.
While pensions are a concern, the more immediate need for the coaches is to avoid a salary reduction that could be implemented in the days, weeks and months following a lockout.
“The players are affected because they miss some roster bonuses and some workout bonuses,” Kennan said, “but they don’t miss salary in March, April, May. Coaches will lose salaries starting in March.”