By Aron Solomon
As someone who has closely followed the NFL for a bunch of decades, I struggle to think of coaches who transitioned from being at the top of the college game to a great start as a pro head coach.
No one is going to have to strain themselves to make an argument that Urban Meyer has made such an admirable transition. Only a month into his first season as an NFL head coach, he has not only made himself unwelcome with his team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he is quickly entering dangerous legal territory. Just as many NFL players have had their contracts voided for conduct deleterious to the team, the same thing could absolutely happen with an NFL head coach.
Aside from leading not only an awful but arguably underachieving team in the first month of the season, Meyer has made some terrible personal decisions, particularly over the past few days.
Let’s quickly recap:
As elegantly described this morning in Slate, Urban Meyer lived out another one of his midlife crises in public this weekend with a (wait for it) restaurant lap dance that has since, of course, become viral grist for the social media mill. If that wasn’t bad enough (really, it was), the coach has made himself unwelcome in his own locker room, according to highly credible reports. Aside from the usual non-apology-apology endemic to situations such as these, Meyer canceled Monday’s team meeting and used the time instead to try to spin the situation. Whether players have simply temporarily lost respect for Coach Meyer or some truly do see him now as a joke, remains to be seen.
The key question here is whether Urban Meyer’s actions have placed his own contractual job security with the Jaguars at risk. As we know, it’s one thing for an NFL coach to be fired – they generally keep getting paid when the team simply feels that it’s no longer a good fit. But what about when an NFL head coach actually violates his contract?
All NFL coaches have termination clauses in their contracts. Just like any contractual employee in the United States (including NFL players), an NFL coach can be terminated “for cause.” This means that a coach’s acts or omissions (failure to act) could be considered a valid cause by the team and league to sever the contractual agreement.
This is critically important because successful termination of a contractual employment agreement “for cause” means that the employee is no longer owed money on their agreement. While we do not know the exact terms of Meyer’s Jaguars contract, it was public knowledge that he was asking for $12M per season to come out of his two-year retirement following a stellar 83-9 record in seven years at Ohio State.
Tim George, an Erie, Pennsylvania, lawyer, points out that whether the employee under contract is an NFL head coach or a comparatively low-paid white collar employee, the legal standards are the same:
“The terms of any employment contract are extremely important. Yet it is important to understand that termination for cause can look different in every situation. While there is an element of subjectivity from one employer to the next, it is commonly agreed upon that clear misconduct of the employee can result in termination for cause.”
Just an hour ago, the Jaguars released what lawyers understand is a preemptive statement for an eventual claim against Mr. Meyer:
The reality is that the Jaguars will keep Urban Meyer for now. In part because of the sad reality that a lot of men in power probably couldn’t care less about what he did, but also because the team took a serious gamble on him, both reputationally and practically. That said, the Jaguars legal team is certainly going to be pulling a few all-nighters this week as they pore over Meyer’s contract, a series of legal precedents, and gathering as much information as possible from a range of sources who can attest to what Meyer actually did this past weekend. They will be ready to invoke “for cause termination,” which may or may not involve a “morals clause” within Meyer’s agreement.
While this is not the first situation in which an NFL head coach has got himself into serious hot water and it most definitely won’t be the last, this is a truly bad look for the Jaguars and their new head coach. When you mix a new and controversial coach with a horrific 0-4 start to his tenure with his new team, the smart money has this ending very badly for Urban Meyer.