Last month, former NFL Network reporter Jim Trotter filed suit against the league, alleging discrimination and retaliation in the league's failure to renew his contract after he twice challenged the Commissioner publicly regarding diversity and representation in the NFL Media newsroom.
Trotter appeared recently on a Slate.com podcast with Jason Johnson. During the conversation, Trotter expressed regret regarding the manner in which some in the media are handling his case.
Trotter mentioned one in particular: ESPN's Stephen A. Smith.
Here's the full content of Trotter's explanation on his point of journalists talking about the case without fully investigating its allegations or understanding the legal principles that support it.
"The biggest disappointment in this whole process for me has been the people who are journalists who speak on my case without actually reading the complaint, or without talking to me first about it," Trotter told Johnson. "So Stephen A. Smith has the Commissioner on his show, and he asks the Commissioner about my contract not being renewed and the Commissioner says, ‘Oh, it was just a budget cut thing.’ So when that was all over, I texted him. And I said, ‘Man, I saw the interview. I just wish you had called me first to get some background and it would have shown you that what the Commissioner said was untrue.’
"He comes back and says to me, ‘That’s on you. We had been advertising the Commissioner was coming on for a week and a half, and I also spoke to a mutual friend who gave me background on the case.’
"So I had texted him back, and I said — and you know, I’m trying to be cool, because I’m not into this Black man on Black man, you know, crime thing — and I said to him, I said, ‘A lot of assumptions there. But I also thought as journalists we were taught you go directly to the source and not to second-hand information.’
"And now that set him off. I got all caps coming at me, I got exclamation points coming at me and all this other stuff. And he’s telling me how this wasn’t about me, and ESPN is a partner with the NFL, and he didn’t have to ask Roger Goodell that question at all, and this, that, and the other. And so finally I said to him, ‘Well, you can have me on to give my side.’ I said, ‘Your move.’ And he said, again, the exclamation points, ‘That ain’t happening. This wasn’t about you. And I did you a courtesy by even getting the Commissioner to comment on it.’
"So anyway at the end of it I just said, ‘A courtesy, huh?’ I said, ‘Man, I appreciate you.’ And I left it alone.
"And I got to thinking, I’m like, as journalists are we simply seeking a comment, or are we seeking the truth? So don’t sit up here and tell me what a great journalist you are if all you are seeking is a comment, instead of the truth.
"You can disagree with me. You can tell me I’m an idiot for filing the lawsuit. And as you went on your podcast and said, ‘I should have known what was gonna happen.’ And I didn’t even see it, people were texting me about his podcast, where he says he reached out to two Black executives not at the NFL or ESPN and asked them, ‘What would they have done if someone like me had put them on the spot like that publicly?’ And they both said, ‘They would have got my ass up out of there.’
"And what I wanted to say to him, ‘Do you even understand the law?’ Because if either of those individuals had done that to someone, they would be breaking the law. But you’re gonna go ahead and say I should know what could happen? There’s a difference between knowing what could happen and the consequences of those actions. So, to me, that’s the only disappointing thing in this whole process is that I would just ask journalists, if you’re gonna speak on this, I don’t mind you having an opinion — you can tell me I was foolish, whatever you want — all I ask is that you read the complaint, or that if you have questions, you call me. I don’t think that’s too much to ask."
It's not too much to ask. Because the simple reality is this — if Trotter's allegations are true and accurate (and the effort to prove them to be true and accurate will surely be met by a vigorous effort by the NFL to prove that they are neither true nor accurate), the NFL broke the law by terminating Trotter's employment.
The law protects, in this specific context, efforts by employees to speak out against actual or perceived racial inequalities in the workplace. The notion that someone who does that is a "troublemaker" and should be fired is grossly outdated and, frankly, not in compliance with federal law or the law of most if not all states in the nation.
For some reason, too many people think it's perfectly fine for an employer to fire an employee who agitates for compliance, whether it relates to racial issues, safety issues, or any other important principle of law or public policy that a company might be violating. It's absolutely not fine.
The law encourages employees to speak out. The law rewards courage in this regard. The law does not look the other way when someone like Trotter works to improve conditions in a newsroom, repeatedly makes no progress despite his best efforts, and then dares to challenge the man in charge in a setting that might cause him some sort of embarrassment, even if that embarrassment is fully earned and deserved.
The line between journalism and entertainment has been irrevocably blurred in recent years. For some issues — like this one — it's important for anyone on TV or radio or podcasts or wherever who biggest dollars came from being an entertainer to set aside catch phrases and retreat to their foundational journalistic principles of truth and accuracy. Whether their employer is a broadcast partner of the NFL should not matter. Whether their unnamed friends with other companies would have a problem with an employee who did what Trotter did does not matter.
What matters are the facts, and the application of the law to those facts. And if the facts as alleged by Trotter are true and accurate, the NFL is going to have a significant problem under the applicable law.