Caught in the crossfire

This week the National Football League Coaches Association (NFLCA) filed an amicus ("friend of the court") brief with the pending case in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (the Court), in support of the Players. The filing brings into light perhaps the most conflicted group in this battle. While coaches have definite allegiances to both sides, they are caught in the crossfire of a nasty and bitter battle.

Conflicted roles

Coaches are technically “management,” yet they empathize with and depend on the labor force (players). Their roles are often conflicted, especially in the area of player contract disputes. The coach has to support management in negotiations yet maintain the allegiance and respect of the player.

ICONShanahan's coaches did not support the NFLCA.

These conflicted allegiances were manifested after the NFLCA filing with a statement from the Redskins’ coaches – signed by all except Mike Shanahan (whose title is Vice President) – disagreeing with the NFLCA's arguments. The Redskins coaches emphasize that they "stand united with our ownership and the brief does not reflect our thoughts on the matter."

Although these coaches may have done this to curry favor with management, they cannot perform their job without players. And when NFL players are allowed to return to team facilities, the Redskins coaches will be tasked with regaining their loyalty.

In four of my years with the Packers, I worked with a coach/general manager in Mike Sherman. Mike had to make tough decisions as a general manager of players while needing to motivate and depend on them as a coach. Mike often told me “I’m going to make you the bad guy,” a role I completely understood as Mike needed to be above the fray in dealing with the business of football. The coach/general manager role requires great skill, and two who do it well are two of the most successful coaches in football – Bill Belichick and Andy Reid.

Lockout losers

The NFL lockout has not been kind to NFL coaches. As far back as 2007, NFL teams were making plans to reduce the coaches’ pay in the event of a lockout (I remember doing so). The timing and amounts of such reductions vary from team to team. Beyond the financial ramifications, coaches have also seen players banned from team facilities. Coaches I have spoken with feel bewildered.

Chomping at the bit

Former NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw felt that coaches had too much time on their hands even in a normal year. He railed against overzealous coaches who stretched the limits of contact in the offseason. I remember him telling me when he visited us: “These guys have been sitting around waiting for the players and then they get them in and do more and more, even knowing they’re not supposed to.”

Last year four teams were docked time in their offseason workouts due to excessive contact. And that was in a non-lockout year! We can expect some coaches trying to make up for lost time if and when players return this summer.

NFLCA argues harm, need for antitrust protection

Now the coaches have entered the fray in the ongoing lockout litigation. The NFLCA is a non-unionized trade association (sound familiar?) that assists coaches with salary information and advice on health insurance, pensions, worker’s compensation, etc. Larry Kennan, a coach who I interviewed twenty years ago to become the coach of the Barcelona Dragons of the World League (he ended up coaching the London Monarchs) leads the group.

Irreparable harm once again

Kennan and his lawyers are claiming irreparable harm (sound familiar?): coaches have fleeting job security with high turnover and constant relocation. And during the lockout these coaches are required to work the same hours as they have in the past, albeit at lower pay levels. Coaches also fear that health insurance and pensions (the Bills have stopped funding) are the next targets for reduction.

Further, as the NFLCA argument goes, the lockout also hinders coaches' career prospects, particularly new coaches, as it "will significantly impinge on coaches’ opportunities to prove themselves and will increase the likelihood that they will suffer failure they can neither avoid nor overcome."

The NFLCA filing – albeit without the support of at least the Redskins’ coaches – appears to show that NFL coaches are taking a side in this dispute, the side of the Players. Without the signatures of any coaches and already one team “opting out” of the filing, however, its impact may be limited.</p>

One week until appeal

Finally, the NFL filed its brief to the Eighth Circuit before the appeal hearing a week from today. They will attempt to have Judge Nelson’s ruling to grant the Players an injunction to stop the lockout overturned. The NFL hit the same themes on which they were successful in getting the stay: this is a labor dispute, not a litigation, and that the Norris-LaGuardia Act prevents a Court (Nelson) from granting an injunction arising out of a labor dispute.

We’ll see the next chapter in St. Louis a week from today. I'll be there…

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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