The plight of the assistants

On May 11th, Larry Kennan of the NFL Coaches Association made a statement that the assistant coaches are considering forming a union. Letters about this potential move went to head coaches and NFL team representatives. This was, of course, motivated by the handful of NFL teams who discontinued their assistants’ retirement accounts and benefits last year, sending shock waves through the coaching community. The assistant coaches (and their wives) are worried that salaries may start going south, that more teams will eliminate pensions, and that existing benefits will get chipped away.

What are the implications of this move?

For one, it calls out the head coaches, the people who hired the assistants and have walked in their shoes. It’s essentially asking them, “Hey, whose team are you on?” This puts the head coach in an awkward situation, because now they are considered management by the NFLCA and the owners. For those teams that eliminated the assistants’ pensions, many, if not all, of the head coaches were also caught off guard by the move. Simultaneously, it left the assistant coaches wondering if the head coach that hired them will (or did) fight to get their benefits back. I do know a few head coaches who did go to their owners and ask them not to remove the assistants’ benefits. I also understand that others just stayed out of the way and did not question the move by owners. I also know that the move has motivated some assistants to eye college jobs, as they provide stable benefits.

The interesting result of unionizing is the pitting of assistants against their head coaches, which could kill morale and affect the teams’ performance during a season.

Secondly, the move to unionize could leave coordinators right in the middle of the firing lines. Larry Kennan told me he sees the coordinators as being closer to the owners than to the assistants, but I get a sense he hasn’t decided yet where to categorize them. Needless to say, coordinators are on the doorstep of becoming head coaches, so they may be left to dangle in the wind if the coaches association makes the move to form a union. However, it will be interesting to see which side they take if there is a line drawn in the sand.

Thirdly, unionization could give the NFL Players Association more leverage in the labor fight against the League. Larry Kennan’s office is located in the NFL Players Association building in Washington, DC. If the assistant coaches union is formed, it will most likely be crafted by the players association’s attorneys, who could also become the mouth piece for the coaches. I don’t think the NFL wants the players association representing their coaches. I’m also sure the players association would love the opportunity to do so.

For the record, NFL assistant coaches are not a greedy bunch and are very appreciative of their jobs. They work 16- to 20-hour days during the season and 8- to 12-hour days in the off-season. Most are married with children and simply don’t want to worry about benefits and retirement plans being pulled out from under them. If the insecurity becomes powerful enough, they will form a union which will create a whole new dynamic for the league to deal with collectively, which I am certain they don’t want. On the flip side, assistant coaches have to be careful because they don’t want to jeopardize their high salaries and push the owners to the point that they create a wage and retirement vesting scale based on years of service. There would be a lot of young coaches all of a sudden.

As of now, the assistants are trying their best to protect their turf but without causing a backlash from the owners. So far, no one really knows if their message is being heard, since the issue is handled differently from team to team. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how seriously the NFLCA will push these issues. The letter to the head coaches is really saying, “Help us out now; fight for us so we don’t have to form a union.”

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