Assistants and agents caught in the crossfire
Today is the 68th day of the lockout, and there are no signs of it ending.
The owners, buoyed by the 8th Circuit Court’s stay and a decision that hinted the court will ultimately side with the owners and allow the lockout, have to feel confident that they will be able to squeeze every dollar out of the players.
The players hold out hope that one of the two judges who ruled against them in the stay will switch sides after reading their brief and hearing the oral argument put forth by Ted Olson.
Olson, the former solicitor general of the United States, successfully argued for President George W. Bush in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case. Olson will argue against Paul Clement, who will represent the NFL June 3 in St. Louis. Clement succeeded Olson as solicitor general.
So there will be no collective bargaining agreement until after the appellate court rules. That will take us to July.
If the owners win, the players can either continue with an appeal, possibly to the Supreme Court, use other legal efforts (individual lawsuits for breach of contract, or hope the antitrust lawsuit moves quickly), cut their losses and try to get a somewhat fair deal out of the owners, or try to hold out as long as possible against a lockout.
If the players win, the owners can either appeal or start the league year. The only other option is to cease operations entirely to avoid contempt of court. That is highly unlikely, but the NFL will try to delay the start of the league year as long as possible.
So while we’ll have a clearer view of the playing field once the 8th Circuit rules, any agreement could be a ways off.
And that means the victims in this labor standoff will continue to suffer. We know most of them.
The players obviously are hurting because they can’t collect bonuses, and those without contracts aren’t able to find new employment. Undrafted free agents are probably the hardest hit because the longer the lockout cuts into training camp, the more their chances of making a roster diminish.
The eight new NFL coaches are falling behind because not only can’t they practice or install their systems, they can’t even talk to their players.
Then there are the small-business owners in NFL towns who count on the business generated by the country’s most popular sport. And of course the fans, who love the game.
But there are two more groups being hit hard, assistant coaches and player agents. You don’t hear much about them because assistant coaches have never had a strong collective voice — and they don’t complain about anything for fear of losing their jobs — and player agents because, well, not many people like them.
Assistant coaches When we left off with the assistant coaches, Larry Kennan, director of the NFL Coaches Association, talked about his group unionizing after the lockout in an effort to stop teams from taking away their pensions and inserting lockout clauses into their contracts.
Two months into the lockout, some teams have followed through.
“Several of them started immediately once there was a lockout,’’ Kennan said. “A couple others started at 30 days, others at 60, some more will kick in at 90 days. So a number of coaches are taking pay cuts and really working like they would normally be working.
“The only thing they’re not doing right now is they don’t have any players to work with, but they’re all working, spending probably as many hours as they would if the players were there. And they’re getting paid less than their contracts called for.’’
Kennan said only seven teams have pledged to their coaching staffs that they will not ask for any pay cuts unless the lockout extends into the season: Seattle, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Oakland, New York Giants, Indianapolis, and Dallas.
The other 25 teams have either already instituted cuts, will do so on June 1, or have the right to do so at some point. The cuts range from 20 to 50 percent.
“Four teams are at 50 percent, there are a couple that are 30 or 35, but generally it’s 20 or 25 percent,’’ Kennan said. “That’s significant. You’re used to living on that. To take half your pay away, that isn’t comfortable.’’
The Patriots, who had lockout clauses put into the contracts of assistant coaches, have not yet docked any pay and say they have no plans to.
Most of the assistants who lose wages will receive the money back once the lockout is over. But not all. The Dolphins, who will cut back all pay June 1, are among those that will not provide refunds, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Kennan said two teams that have already docked pay are the Ravens and Packers.
“That was surprising to me that they did that because those two teams are so good to their coaches and employees,’’ Kennan said. “They are two of the model organizations in the game. The coaches will recoup the money, absolutely.’’
All of this has put the assistant coaches in the position of not knowing which side to root for in the lockout.
“It’s not sitting well at all,’’ said Kennan, “because what happens is there will be a staff meeting and management says to the coaches, ‘We are in this fight with the players.’ And coaches are saying, ‘OK, if we’re in this fight, how come we’re taking a pay cut? Are we with you or are we with the players?’ “It’s crazy. Nobody’s losing money at this point. They will lose money if there are no games played, but they’re not losing money yet. Yet they’re docking money from the coaches and other people working the building, and that doesn’t seem right.’’
Agents You don’t have to tell Ralph Cindrich how unsympathetic people are towards agents. After a short career as an NFL linebacker with the Patriots, Oilers, and Broncos, Cindrich has been a lawyer and agent for the past 33 years.
“You’re right, not a sympathetic group and they shouldn’t be,’’ Cindrich said. “If there’s one thing fans would cheer about with this lockout, it’s that the number of agents would go down.’’
Some agents are being hit hard with the lockout, and some of the damage is self-inflicted.
Several agents said that during the annual agent meeting at this year’s scouting combine, one lower-rung agent stood up to ask Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith a question. The demonstrative agent wanted to know when the lockout would end because he had already paid out of his pocket to secure the player, give him walking-around money, training, trips, and, yes, female entertainment.
At that point, Smith interrupted him and said, “Allegedly.’’
It’s not just a few agents that engage in unscrupulous activity. The dirty secret the NCAA turns a blind eye to is that some draft prospects receive signing bonuses from agents while they are still in school.
“Big agencies will come in and offer guys — even if they’re an offensive guard — a large signing bonus and advance that money and have it paid back through marketing opportunities,’’ Cindrich said. “You’re paying all the other expenses. Keep in mind that all these guys want cars.’’
A legitimate expense is player training. Agents used to pay for their players to train up until the draft. Agents now will be on the hook for training through the end of the lockout, whenever that may be, and will recoup only a portion of that money.
To this point, the cost to train a player is about $30,000. That adds up for agencies with multiple draft picks. Athletes First, Rosenhaus Sports, SportStars, Priority Sports, and SportsTrust all had at least 10 players drafted this year. If the lockout extends into the season, those agencies could be looking at losses approaching $1 million.
That doesn’t even include undrafted free agents, whom agents also have to pay and face the longest odds of actually seeing a paycheck.
“A young guy, I have to pay for the training even if he’s a sixth-round draft choice,’’ Cindrich said. “You may have promised that for your free agents as well.
“If you have enough guys and enough staying power, you’re able to spread that around. But younger guys are all going to hit their agents up for money for their loans and cars.’’
Said another agent: “There’s one smaller [agent] I talk to and he signed like four or five guys that didn’t get drafted and even on those kids I’m sure he laid out a whole lot of money. I think guys are definitely feeling it.’’
Talk among agents is that in the case of one player who was drafted later than expected, the agent shelled out $300,000 for various expenses.
“They ain’t getting that money back,’’ another agent said.
Rookies, both drafted and undrafted, seem to be much of the problem.
“We lay out a ridiculous amount of money and normally you know when you’re going to get it back,’’ one agent said. “Honestly, I hope this teaches everybody a little bit of a lesson. We shouldn’t be laying out all this cash. It’s ridiculous what goes on.’’
There are also the smaller, independent agents who have built their business to where they should now be cashing in during free agency on their top clients. Of course, there is no free agency right now. And with the NFLPA decertified, there are no rules among agents.
In an effort to keep their free agents happy and to fend off other agents, some agents have worked to secure loans for their clients and have put their own financial future at risk by co-signing those loans.
“I have to lend this kid money he’s one of my biggest clients,’’ an agent said. “I have to keep him and I’ll be more than happy to co-sign that loan. Even if that means putting my own financial standing on the hook.’’
Fans might not care about them — and they may even cheer their demise — but the longer the lockout goes, the more agents will be hurt. If that happens, the more instability the players have to endure, and that’s not good for anyone.
“There’s no support group for us because nobody gives a crap about us,’’ an agent said. “Nobody cares about the agents. That’s the nature of what we are. Typically no one has ever cared about what happens to us.’’
“The players are obviously in a hole,’’ said Cindrich. “I think anytime you have the prospect of a client who can break or is ready to break, if you’re an astute negotiator, you go in early, not at the last minute.
“I’ve been in it many times when teams have broke holding out guys, sometimes midseason, and you know right away when a team breaks. They just give it all up.
“So if you feel like that’s going to be the case, the advice would be would be to start right now at making that deal, even if it means concessions.’’
Cindrich, however, cautioned not to underestimate the power the players could gain if Judge David Doty hands them a substantial judgment in the TV rights case. Doty already ruled the NFL did not act in good faith with it secured the latest TV contracts. The players are asking for at least $700 million in damages.
“Judge Doty by most accounts is in a position to be able to do something with the TV money to prevent the surrounding of the fort [by the owners] and starving out of the people inside, and those are the players,’’ Cindrich said.
He also had a persuasive argument that many players are suffering irreparable harm during the lockout. Irreparable harm is one of the areas where the 8th Circuit disagreed with the district court.
“All you have to do is go through and look at the number of guys [i.e. undrafted free agents] who won’t have an opportunity out there to ever play because of what’s going on right now,’’ Cindrich said. “And, really, the judges have a part in this, in just sitting on it.
“They are sitting and waiting instead of moving just a little more quickly. Those free agent players, when are they going to get their opportunity and their chance to make a team?
“The risks go from [former undrafted players] Kurt Warner to Jeff Saturday and on and on of guys who would have never experienced what they experienced in their life but for that opportunity to play, which is missing here.
“So dollars can’t make that up. Same with free agent quarterbacks. How are they going to fit in? For a lot of them, it’s their last shot.’’
Cindrich also feels the on-field play can’t help but suffer because of the offseason activities that have been missed.
“How many times do you sit there in the stands and say, ‘Damn, this looks like a preseason game?’ I think we’re going to get more of that unless they get together and start working,’’ he said.
“I’m honored to join Best Buddies to raise money for such a tremendous cause,’’ Brady said in a statement. “Connecting people who may not normally be friends and changing the way people think about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities — that’s huge.’’
The Tom Brady Football Challenge & Tailgate, which will take place at Harvard Stadium June 3, will kick off the weekend’s festivities. Brady will play quarterback for both teams, which will include Best Buddies participants and supporters. A tailgate party will follow.
On June 4, hundreds of cyclists ride from Boston to Hyannis Port. The Challenge is open to participants of all ages and abilities.
Best Buddies is dedicated to creating opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To register, or for tickets, go to www.bestbuddieschallenge.org.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.