Owners bullying coaches, staffers with pay cuts

If you're unclear on what provoked the NFL labor war that, on Friday, sees owners and players waging their latest battle at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, the answer is surprisingly simple: This is a money grab by the owners. The bottom line is that the folks who sign the checks are looking to improve their bottom line.

Whatever your views on whether this money grab is justified, a product of greed or somewhere in between, its existence is unassailable. The owners unanimously opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008, began preparing for a lockout this spring and, when the NFL Players Association balked at a late offer that would have significantly reduced their share of total revenues and decertified, followed through on the threat. Their lawyers will now try to convince the appellate court to overturn a ruling by U.S. District Court judge Susan Nelson ending the lockout.

As Bill Belichick would say, It is what it is.

Yet even those of you who sympathize with the owners in this dispute should be repulsed by a far more gratuitous money grab that's taking place in conjunction with the lockout – the pay reductions of coaches and other team employees introduced by various franchises throughout the league.

Three adjectives come to mind to describe this practice: Senseless, shameless and gutless.

It would be one thing if this was September or October and games were actually being missed. Once significant revenues are lost, the owners will have a legitimate case for cutting costs – even at the expense of employees caught in the crossfire. Doing it over the offseason, when they're arguably making money on the lockout – at least in the short term – is preposterous.

The first and most obvious point is that there's no evidence such a move is necessary. Earlier this week, Sports Business Journal reported that, against all odds, NFL teams are ahead of last year's pace for season-ticket sales. While the article noted that teams might be suffering in other areas – including sponsorships, merchandising and licensing – there's no evidence that this has happened either.

Meanwhile, it seems reasonable to surmise that, given the absence of offseason activities for players – not to mention the indefinitely delayed start of the league year, which instigates free agency and triggers lucrative roster bonuses for numerous players – owners are benefiting from some sizable cost-cutting.

"The owners' overhead is reduced significantly with the lockout," said Steve Caric, a Las Vegas-based player agent. "Expenses such as player salaries, 401(k) contributions, insurance and operations costs are gone. Yet a number of teams are cutting the jobs and/or pay of their staffs and coaches prior to any games being missed. I don't see how they can justify punishing hard-working people for a situation which they created."

Further damning is the fact that, with the disappearance of the salary cap in the final year of the recently expired CBA, owners had every opportunity to plan for this eventuality. Some teams blatantly seemed to do just that – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars reportedly spent less than $90 million in player compensation last season, for an estimated savings of more than $30 million apiece (relative to what would have been the spending minimum in a capped year). Yet Chiefs owner Clark Hunt is among those who instituted staffwide pay reductions once the lockout began in March – a move that, in his case, is particularly unconscionable.

Other owners who've reportedly reduced salaries and/or mandated unpaid furloughs include the Arizona Cardinals' Bill Bidwill, the Atlanta Falcons' Arthur Blank, the Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson, the Detroit Lions' William Clay Ford, the Miami Dolphins' Stephen Ross and the New York Jets' Woody Johnson.

Conversely, the group of owners who've done right by their employees includes the Cleveland Browns' Randy Lerner, the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis (who has also mandated that staffers sell season-ticket plans to avoid a pay cut). Several teams (the Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks) have promised not to cut coaching staff pay, even if the lockout extends into the season, and the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson has commendably told employees they won't suffer any negative financial ramifications – regardless of whether it lasts several months past September.

Last week, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, who'd previously cut employee pay by 25 percent during the lockout, changed his mind and refunded the money.

Unless and until those other owners get religion the way Bisciotti did, I'm going to regard them as sinners, at least in the "Thou shalt not steal" sense.

You might regard that rhetoric as over the top, but unlike the fight over cash playing out between the players and owners, I truly see this as a matter of right and wrong. Some of the pay cuts may be relatively painless, but I know of several NFL coaches who are getting dinged severely. None will discuss it publicly, for obvious reasons – casting the boss in a negative light isn't a very smart career move. But several agents who represent coaches have confirmed that precipitous pay cuts have been in play.

"Most coaches are affected one way or the other, and a few are affected quite substantially," said Octagon president Phil de Picciotto, whose client list includes three current NFL head coaches. "Most are seeing reductions in the 25-to-50 percent range, with some outliers on each end. In some cases, the money is recoupable if no games are missed, and in some cases the givebacks are voluntary. There are many complexities involved – including the timing of when the contract was signed – and every situation is different."

As de Picciotto notes, most head coaches feel privileged to have one of the 32 NFL jobs and understand that this is a uniquely trying situation. As leaders and well-compensated, loyal employees, some feel a sense of obligation to make financial sacrifices – at least within reason. However, it's not like coaches are having their workloads significantly reduced during the lockout, as a settlement or court order could hasten a sudden start to a league year for which they must be prepared.

They may be easy marks, but the fact remains that their bosses are preying upon their coaches' vulnerabilities and using their standoff with the players as an excuse.

"The owners are doing to coaches what they would do to the players if they could," one prominent agent said. "But these employees have no one to stick up for their collective interests, so they have no choice but to let it happen."

What the coaches have is a faux union representing their interests, the NFL Coaches Association. Last week, the NFLCA filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of the players' attempt to end the lockout, arguing that the lack of preparation time caused by the work stoppage was putting some coaches' jobs in jeopardy. It did not make a stink about the lost wages the lockout has triggered thus far.

Shortly thereafter, the Washington Redskins issued a statement signed by all 17 of the team's assistant coaches which stated: "We stand united with ownership and the brief does not reflect our thoughts on the matter."

Jags head coach Jack Del Rio said he and his assistant coaches were unaware of the NFLCA filing.
(US Presswire)

Since that time, nine other teams have issued statements claiming their coaches were unaware of the brief before it was filed.

While gauging the sincerity of such proclamations is difficult – a cynic would view those statements as the equivalent of those made by a hostage hailing the righteousness of his captors – it's clear that the NFLCA lacks the clout to speak for its alleged membership.

The truth is probably somewhere in between the NFLCA's version of events and that of teams like the Redskins – and the fact remains that coaches are caught in the middle of this mess. They don't merely want the lockout to end for financial reasons; they're also looking to begin the offseason programs they view as crucial to team-bonding and eventual success. Yet they also fear the rebuke of their bosses, who reportedly threatened to fire coaches for cause if they make any unauthorized contact with players during the lockout.

That seemed like a heavy-handed way to approach a situation not of the coaches' making, and those heavy hands are now busy trying to snatch cash from the bank accounts of employees caught in the middle of this labor war.

I can hear Belichick sizing it up as I type: It is what it is.

Yes – and what it is, is wrong.