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NFL coaches add their voices to labor fight

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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With everyone else jockeying for position in the current lockout battles, it was only a matter of time before the NFL's coaches followed suit. They did so in an amicus brief filed in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, and this particular brief may have some legal ramifications for other interested parties if the court decides that the argument is valid. By filing and asking for antitrust protection under the Sherman Act, the NFL coaches might pave the way for a ruling in favor of a larger non-union organization with even more at stake — the NFL players.

In the brief — which was actually filed on behalf of the "National Football League Coaches Association" as opposed to any coaches being mentioned by name — it is argued that NFL coaches are suffering irreparable harm (the popular legal catchphrase of the day) for a number of reasons:

-- Over the last several years, NFL teams have demanded that lockout provisions be added to coaches' contracts, allowing the teams to slash salaries in the event of a work stoppage. Many teams have already made salary cuts, and many NFL coaches are, as a result, working in their offseasons at a reduced rate. The brief cites the 2011 Cf. White v. Nat'l Football League ruling, in which it was found that owners negotiated work-stoppage payments with broadcasters. It's unclear how the two things are directly related unless the argument is for collusive action relating to a lockout plan, but as the brief also states, "These income reductions are occurring amid the burdens of mortgage payments, tuition, and other life costs that do not wait for the NFL to end its lockout."

-- The brief also discusses how the lack of time with players will affect coaches' ability to be fully prepared, also affecting their job security. "Coaches desperately need time with their players to prepare for the upcoming season. The spring and summer months are crucial both to prepare players physically for the demanding season and also to teach the players the offensive and defensive schemes that will be used throughout the year. This is especially true for new coaches, who are burdened by the same expectations for success (despite usually inheriting teams with few recent accomplishments) yet are responsible for instituting and executing new plans." The NFL rules that give new coaching staffs additional minicamps to put things together indicate just how important this extra time can be, and it's pretty clear that those coaching staffs not suffering major turnover in the offseason will go into the 2011 season, whenever it begins, with an unfair advantage.

-- The strongest point brought up in the brief has to do with the merciless expectations of success brought to any coach — even a new head coach — and the increasing percentages of coaches whose jobs simply don't last. "Coaches who cannot produce immediate results suffer irreparable harm. They must uproot their families to seek employment elsewhere, and they have difficulty overcoming the perception of failure. The hours and effort demanded of assistant coaches are justified only by the prospect of lucrative and stable employment that follows proven success. Failure at an early stage of one's career, however, can falter career aspirations for many subsequent years."

-- The brief details the unstable nature of the coaching profession, bringing the irreparable harm concept into sharper focus. "Over the past ten years, over seventeen coaches have been fired each year, on average, after only two years on the job or less, and approximately twenty coaches per year have been fired after three years on the job. Moreover, firing rates of such coaches have been steadily on the rise. Despite the need to uproot families and relocate homes with each job change, coaches are afforded little financial protection against the whims of management and rarely obtain contracts for longer than two years."

Also, the brief brings up the NCAA's plan to constrain the wages of assistant coaches that was fought in Law v. NCAA in 1998, and wonders whether the owners will use the threat of the lockout to install "coordinated cost cutting." At the same time, the brief asks whether it would be best for the NFL coaches to form a union of their own. It's clear that on the face of things, NFL coaches should be able to expect protection against antitrust violations. What is less clear is how the Eighth Circuit Court will rule on this matter. When this court overturned and undressed the prior ruling made by Judge Susan Nelson in Minnesota, it proved that there are some very active pro-business judges who are just as willing to step out on their own as they are to interpret and forward the cause of prior law.

It's one more complication added to the next phase of the labor situation, which will begin on June 3, back in that same court, as the players appeal the latest ruling.

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