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Mangini, Belichick and the NFL Coaches’ Code of Silence

In the September 24 issue of Sports Illustrated, Peter King writes that Eric Mangini broke “a long-held code that NFL coaches live by: Don’t go against the family.”  According to King, there are three parts to the code:  1)  “don’t mess with a former colleague’s players,” 2) “don’t mess with a former colleague’s coaches,” and 3) don’t snitch.  The column also quotes one anonymous NFL head coach as saying “What Mangini did is a disgrace.  He wouldn’t be a coach in this league without Bill, and this is how he repays him.”

King’s column identifies two code violations by Mangini.  First, he lured away a Patriots free agent whom the Patriots were trying to retain.  Second, he exposed his former boss breaking the rules.  This demonstrated his lack of loyalty, loyalty that head coaches (and by implication teams and the league) understandably and properly require.  Indeed, the argument might go, without such loyalty, why would a coach invest in his assistants, sharing his knowledge and the team’s secrets, if he knew that his methods and knowledge might be used against him in the future?  Thus, in a sense, the coaches’ code forms an unwritten covenant not to compete that all assistants must honor.

Characterizing the coaches’ code as a covenant not to compete creates an interesting perspective from which to evaluate Mangini’s behavior.  As an initial matter, covenants not to compete are not uniformly enforced.  Courts evaluate them for reasonableness.  Indeed, courts often regard promises not to hire a former employer’s key staff reasonable on the theory that employers have legitimate interests in retaining staff crucial to the operation of their businesses.  This interest gets balanced against the right of employees to find new employment.  In the context of the NFL, clubs have always wanted to restrict the movement of key players, but players have limited that impulse through free agency obtained through collective bargaining and litigation.  Coaches have fewer protections.

The same probably cannot be said for whistleblowing.  Convenants not to divulge trade secrets are, of course, generally enforceable.  However, the Patriots’ taping of signals in direct violation of league rules is not the kind of confidential information courts will allow a company to suppress.  Thus, from a covenant not to compete perspective, Mangini did nothing wrong in informing the league of the Patriots’ infraction.

It remains to be seen whether NFL coaches really do disapprove of Mangini blowing the whistle on Belichick, and whether he will suffer social sanctions that often come with breaking unwritten “codes” of behavior.  Personally, I suspect that it won’t be that bad.  Like courts, coaches also understand that everyone needs to play by the rules, or else fair competition is impossible.  Granted, Mangini disclosed a relatively trivial form of rule-breaking by the Patriots.  Nevertheless, that remains less troubling to coaches than trying to hire away Patriots’ players or staff, and there doesn’t seem to be too much angst over Mangini’s free agent hiring practices.