When NFL owners voted in late March to allow clubs to opt out of league-run pension, retirement and 401(k) plans for employees and coaches, it didn't seem like a big deal. But it is now that nine teams have notified the league –- and their coaches –- that they intend to break with its policy.
|Indy OL coach Howard Mudd could walk away this month because of potential retirement plan changes. (Getty Images)|
However, Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com reports that the Jaguars have decided to opt out, too, bringing the number of teams that will break with the league-run pension to nine.
So what? So coaches are outraged, with one assistant telling me Wednesday he heard that one staff is threatening to quit en masse while another has talked about a one-day walkout. I don't think that happens, but I do think coaches are ticked. In fact, I know so, and they've already been affected by the change.
Indianapolis offensive line coach Howard Mudd unexpectedly could retire this month -- and offensive coordinator Tom Moore might join him, one coach said -- because of prospective changes in the retirement plan, with Mudd fearful he might not be able to take his pension in a full, lump-sum payment.
Mudd is 67. Moore is 70. They're not only two of the league's most respected and accomplished assistants, they're cornerstones of one of the NFL's most successful franchises. When Tony Dungy took over in Indianapolis, one of his first orders of business was to make sure both coaches stayed. Now, they may be forced out because of ... a pension plan?
Somehow, that doesn't seem right.
"This is a big deal because guys fear that, in the end, they could get shafted," said one assistant. "One of the attractions of the NFL was its pension plan. It took care of everyone. Now it doesn't. People are angry."
The problem, one coach told me, is twofold: That owners dared to consider a proposal where they could drop or lessen their involvement with a plan in which, until now, they had been required to participate fully, and that they actually went for it. But they did, voting at the league's winter meetings to make the change, giving them the flexibility to determine alternative retirement plans and to find something that best suits their clubs.
That's understandable, especially considering the current business climate. But this is not: They never consulted the employees that were going to be affected. Worse, almost none of them notified employees until weeks afterward, with one team getting the word Tuesday.
"It's a horrible way to treat employees," said Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL coaches association. "It's obvious they're not our friends and don't care about us.
"To me, what this is all about is a lack of respect for the employees. The NFL has said it does not want us [coaches] to unionize because it considers us managerial, but if we're managerial why didn't they notify us they were changing our pensions?"
That is a question some coaches ask now. One assistant said he fields two to three calls a day from nervous assistants, wondering what is next. Another said he heard that an AFC head coach threatened to quit if his team's owner went through with plans to opt out of the league-run policy. He did not.
At least two clubs that will opt out notified employees by mail, while in San Francisco, Kennan said, coaches were told shortly before going into mini-camp meetings. They had been under the impression, he said, that the 49ers would make no changes because of the high cost of living in the Bay Area.
"The problem," said one league source, "is that everyone is in the dark. They're probably not getting straight answers from their teams."
That sounds about right. Nobody is sure what all this means, which is why club employees are anxious. I heard something about teams having to have plans that are at least 80 percent funded by a summer deadline -- reports varied from June 1 to July 1 -- or they're forbidden from making lump-sum payments to recipients.
But they can make partial payments instead. Plus, it appears only two or three clubs will not be in compliance by the deadline. Remarkably, the Cincinnati Bengals won't be one of them. According to one source, they're one of two teams already fully funded.
There's something else, too: Club employees won't lose money out of this. Whatever they accrued in retirement plans, a league spokesman said, they keep -- though it might be in partial payments or annuities rather than lump-sum returns.
But that is not the point. What is, as one assistant said, is that a league that just lavished $41.5 million in guaranteed money on Matthew Stafford before he takes a snap is tinkering with retirement plans for longtime employees -- and it's doing it without consulting them or notifying them that something like this was in the works.
Furthermore, teams haven't explained where they're going next -- and that can be an issue for coaches because of their frequency of movement. A coach who spends, say, a year with one club, three with another and five with another isn't sure how those teams might change their pensions -- if, in fact, they change them at all -- and what impact those changes could have on his retirement.
That, it appears, is what is happening with Mudd, who coached for six NFL teams.
"When guys here were told," said one head coach, "the reaction was widespread panic. I think it was because they just don't know what's going to happen. So I looked into it and was told it was because the club is looking for other retirement options to see what is more cost effective. And that might be true. But I also think the league is trying to position itself for future talks with the Players Association and to portray itself as a group that is hurting economically ... and that's risky. This is a bad move because guys are scared. They just don't know what's going on."
They might soon. Kennan said he plans to accompany DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, when he visits clubs the next six weeks. I guarantee that coaches will be heard.