America’s most popular sport is a $12-billion-per-year business. If the NFL offers you a high-profile job, you’d be a fool not to take it. The prestige and paycheck are too attractive to ignore. It’s easy to get seduced by both, and you can’t blame any broadcaster or writer for taking advantage of the exclusive access NFL.com and NFL Network provides.
But what’s the non-monetary cost for that access? Is there a Faustian deal implicitly or explicitly that comes with being connected to a powerful entity? Those are the types of questions that journalists considering working for the NFL should be asking themselves, especially now. Jim Trotter’s discrimination lawsuit paints a picture of a hostile work environment that is, at best, insensitive and tone-deaf, and, at worst, ready to punish anyone who speaks out about in-house wrongdoings.
The lawsuit accuses the league of retaliatory actions by not renewing the contract of Trotter, a former NFL.com reporter. The complaint argued that the NFL severed ties with Trotter because he publicly questioned comissioner Roger Goodell about the league’s lack of diversity and that Trotter pushed internally for the NFL to investigate discriminatory comments by team owners, including Terry Pegula and Jerry Jones.
It’s important to remember that this is a civil case, not a criminal one. Goodell and the NFL have denied these allegations. It’s also important to note that the NFL doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given its track record. Plus, we all saw what happened to Trotter in recent years as his relationship with his former employer fractured right before our eyes.
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is a former lawyer. On the NFL on NBC’s YouTube channel, Florio said that the NFL viewed Trotter as a “troublemaker.”
“I handled cases like this when I practiced law,” he said. “I tried to vindicate the rights of employees who lost their jobs for being troublemakers. He was a troublemaker in the eyes of the NFL. They retaliated against him because he was agitating for change for better representation of minority employees in management positions and in the newsroom. And he made the mistake of asking the emperor about it in a public setting, not once but twice. And that’s frowned upon. That’s his argument.”
Who knows if Trotter or the NFL and its armada of lawyers will prevail? This case might never go to trial. Most civil suits reach an out-of-court settlement. The ultra-rich hate words like “discovery” and “depositions” because they can reveal potentially damaging and embarrassing information that they desperately don’t want the public to know. The NFL might be motivated to make this story disappear by offering to cut Trotter a check. It happens every day in our litigious society. However, Trotter might not call it quits that easily. After all, he dared to ask tough questions that he knew would put his employment in jeopardy.
That’s principled behavior. Would you be willing to risk financial security?
Perhaps the better question is: Should someone even want to put themselves in this position? This suit should serve as a cautionary tale for every journalist thinking about working for the NFL. It’s a league of oligarchs, and the wealthy do not like being told what to do. They do not like being shamed or forced to capitulate to the demands of others, particularly by someone on their payroll.
The NFL hired someone with a history of championing social justice issues, then had the audacity to be shocked when Trotter did his job. If the league can react this way to someone as respected as Trotter, it won’t think twice about doing the same to another media member who gives an opinion that the NFL doesn’t care for. The Trotter drama played out in plain sight, but most employer vs. employee disputes don’t.
Whatever the outcome of the Trotter suit, it will be easier to squash the next NFL broadcaster or writer with a legitimate beef. And that should scare everyone.