Coaches Should Be Involved in the Labor Dispute


It’s now 6:30 pm on May 21st, and chances seem pretty good that we’re not gonna die today. Even though most intelligent people weren’t exactly worried about the vague predictions of apocalypse or the coming of judgement day, I’ll admit I was a little hopeful. I had my end-of-the-world battle plan all laid out, I knew where I was going to go to stock up on ammunition and Chef Boyardee before hotwiring a motorcycle and lighting out for the badlands like Mad Max. But then 6pm, and nothing. I’m not afraid to say I was a little bummed.

But can you blame me? The world isn’t exactly a bright, cheery place at the moment. The economy’s in the crapper, the job market is downright ugly, and across the globe people are fighting and rebelling and carrying on the way they have for centuries. Not exactly Valhalla, if you think about it. But the world has been this way for decades – at the least the two and a half I’ve been alive – and for years now I’ve been able to cope with the madness reasonably enough, at least to the point where I wasn’t secretly praying for doomsday. So what’s the difference this year? Why is 2011 seemingly so much more dark and gloomy than 2008, when the economy first collapsed, or 2009, when we hit record highs for unemployment and gas prices at the same time? Oh. Duh. We actually had football then.

Without the promise of a new Eagles season on the horizon, without a full five months of for-real and fantasy football to look forward to, falling into despair is pretty understandable. For some fans – myself included – the world might as well have already ended. Judgement day was two months ago, the verdict was inconclusive, and now we’re all floating around in some stale, monotonous purgatory, waiting to find out if we’ll be saved or doomed. Maybe I’m not exactly wishing for the end of the world, but I can’t say I’d be all that torn up about it either.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at a new strategy that might speed up our time here in limbo and hasten the coming of football:

Why NFL Coaches Should Join the Labor Dispute, on the Side of the Players

A little more than two years ago, NFL owners voted to dramatically change the pension and retirement programs for assistant coaches, allowing teams to opt out of them altogether and ultimately offer nothing – absolutely nothing – to coordinators and skill coaches in the way of retirement benefits. Days after the rule change was implemented, nine teams –  the Falcons, Patriots, Jaguars, Cardinals, Bills, Texans, Saints, 49ers, and Cowboys – decided to opt out completely, much to the chagrin of the assistant coaches who had signed contracts with those teams months or even weeks before the change, when they had no way of knowing they were about to be screwed out of thousands of dollars in benefits.

Assistants for other teams – including Colts’ offensive coordinator Tom Moore and new Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd – were so appalled by the move that they tendered their resignations immediately, vowing to retire rather than work for a league that cared so little about its lesser-known coaches. Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL coaches association, was particularly infuriated by the way owners kept quiet about the policy change until it had already been voted on and signed into effect. In an interview with, Kennan said:

“Maybe had we known those nine teams had opted out, [the coaches] wouldn’t have signed with one of them. We felt really, really disrespected and betrayed.”

In another interview with ESPNs Chris Mortensen, Kennan described the impact the rule change might have on the quality of coaching in the NFL going forward: “Over the course of time,” he said, “I think you’ll see the NFL lose some quality coaches, especially quality young coaches, because of this pension issue. Look at how well colleges are paying coaches now; one of the factors that weighed in NFL favor for these coaches was the league pension plan. Now? That could change.”

Of course, the owners’ decision to “privatize” team pension plans came at the same time they were formulating a strategy for the lockout, rolling out one cost-saving initiative after another in a massive, calculated assault on the NFL’s $9 billion cash pool. In the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing recession, owners routinely cited economic uncertainty and market forces as their reasoning for such moves, declining to offer specific facts or figures in the same way they would later deny DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA access to their financial records. Owners just said “it’s a recession, we all have to make sacrifices,” then terminated the pension funds for dozens of veteran coaches across the league before opting out of a signed contract with the players and suspending them without pay until they agreed to take a pay cut.

In this regard – being screwed over by the owners for no reason – coaches and players are already on the same team. Granted, most head coaches in the league are well-paid and well-cared for in terms of post-employment benefits, but they were all once assistant coaches. They know what it’s like to try to work your way up through the ranks, to move your family across the country again and again and again in a ceaseless, sometimes torturous climb to the top of the mountain. Line coaches, receivers coaches, secondary coaches, and all the other various assistants are just as vital to a head coach’s success as his players, and can sometimes mean the difference between a winning season or being shoved back down the mountain and ending up a coordinator for another team 2,000 miles away. H.C.s have all the reason in the world to stand up for their assistants, and they now have an opportunity to do so in a big, big way.

There’s also, of course, the issue of team management, and the fact that the longer the lockout goes the less chance coaches have to teach and train their team. This year’s draft picks – without training camp or the preseason – will essentially be worthless come September, and younger players like Nate Allen and Brandon Graham will suffer exponentially by being denied access to both coaches and team medical staff throughout this offseason. Potential trades like Kevin Kolb and Quintin Mikell are getting closer and closer to the end of their contracts, when they will be able to sign with another team for nothing more than a Thanks and a handshake. Coaches, in short, have more reason than most to disdain the lockout, and it’s time they gave up their political neutrality and joined the fight.

By jumping into the labor dispute, big-name coaches like Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan could reinvigorate the public resentment of the lockout and focus pressure squarely on the owners. Picture a schoolyard argument between two sixth-graders, maybe about who’s the better basketball player. If it’s just the two of them, the fight could last for hours. Neither would be swayed by the other’s points, neither would change their opinion or admit defeat. But what happens when you add a crowd? The argument gets more intense, of course. Both kids now need to make their points with more force, a louder voice, maybe start insulting the other guy, in an effort to win over audience. Backing down is now completely out of the question; neither kid wants to look like a loser in front of the whole school.

But what happens if you add a couple 8th-graders to the situation. Basketball stars, all-State forwards for the school team. If they stand on the sidelines and watch, not a whole lot would change. The kids might not even notice they were there. But if they were to get involved – stand up behind one of the kids and say “Wait, stop. This kid is right. And that kid actually stole my little brother’s skateboard last week,” well, the argument would probably end in a hurry. The crowd would side with the popular guys, maybe start pointing and laughing at the loser, who would then be willing to do anything at all in order to get out of there as soon as possible. Fine, he’d say, you’re better. Whatever. But I’m still richer.

Though I doubt it will happen, I would really like to see a few coaches get involved in the labor dispute before we hit the point of no return. Even in small ways – like making a pointed comment or two to Mortensen or Tim Ryan in an interview – they can influence owner opinion in a way De Smith or Tom Brady never could. Owners know, from hard experience, that good coaches are not as easy to come by as good quarterbacks, and I doubt very many would be comfortable saying that Bill Belichick is expendable. They would be forced to acknowledge the comments – if not altogether listen to them – and they might ultimately be forced to reevaluate their position.

Or, because they are insanely rich and successful people, the owners might just laugh it all off and continue on doing whatever they want, to whoever they want to. Either way, it’s not the end of the world. At least for now.