Longtime journalist Jim Trotter’s civil rights lawsuit against the NFL could prove impactful no matter how far it advances in court.
An award-winning reporter for NFL Media, the league-owned media arm, Trotter filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York on Tuesday. He raises claims under federal and New York laws and alleges he was subjected to disparate treatment, a hostile work environment and retaliation via denial of a contract extension.
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The lawsuit could lead to pretrial discovery where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, owners and other witnesses would be required to give sworn testimony about race and related topics, and share sensitive emails and text messages.
Trotter, who worked for NFL Media from 2018 to this year and is now a columnist for The Athletic, says he was punished for speaking up, including in public forums that featured Goodell, about race discrimination and lack of diversity in the league. He argues the league, including owners and the commissioner, treated him in a manner “with a documented history of silencing, retaliating against and ‘blackballing’ Black men who speak out.”
Trotter’s complaint attributed statements to NFL owners in which they are portrayed as making racist remarks.
Trotter says that a fellow reporter said that Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula, in response to NFL player activism during Black Lives Matter in 2020, stated “if the Black players don’t like it here, they should go back to Africa and see how bad it is.”
Trotter also claims that during the same year Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told him, in response to a question about a lack of black professionals among team decision-makers, “If Blacks feel some kind of way, they should buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.”
Both Pegula and Jones deny making these statements. A league spokesperson declined to comment to Sportico on whether the NFL had previously investigated or was planning to investigate those owners’ alleged comments.
Goodell has the authority to punish an owner, including by fine or suspension, for conduct detrimental to the league, including advocacy of positions that have a materially adverse effect on the league. Earlier this year Goodell suspended and fined Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for tampering.
An owner who makes a racist remark would undermine the league’s relationship with players, a majority of whom are black, as well as with fans, sponsors and media partners, particularly if the owner isn’t punished. NBA commissioner Adam Silver was widely praised in 2014 for issuing a lifetime ban of then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks, while knowing Sterling would likely sue Silver and the league. Sterling did and lost.
Trotter argues he repeatedly raised concerns to his superiors about racist or racially insensitive statements in the largely white newsroom and league office, but no meaningful action was taken.
And when Trotter pushed too hard, he said he was shot down.
For instance, when he demanded clarification from the league on how it handled the collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, an executive in the league’s office allegedly reminded Trotter he was not just a journalist but also an NFL employee. Trotter was told to “let this go” or else he would be reported to his superior.
To that point, Trotter depicts the NFL as so tightly controlling NFL Media, a label that includes the NFL Network, NFL.com, NFL NOW and other league media platforms, that it resembled the kind of state-sponsored media found in the former Soviet Union or North Korea.
“NFL Media is nothing more than an arm of the NFL,” Trotter’s complaint argues. He says the league office manages and controls the content, that NFL Media journalists ultimately report to the league and team owners, and the overarching goal of NFL Media is to “protect the shield.”
Through pretrial discovery, which would include sharing of emails and witness testimony, the NFL might be forced to address how it responded to Trotter’s allegations.
Trotter recounts he received assurances that his contract would be renewed earlier this year, but he sensed that might change after he was no longer being assigned work and was excluded from work functions. This followed Trotter publicly challenging, and possibly embarrassing, Goodell for a second time in two years at the commissioner’s annual “state of the league” press conference.
Trotter demanded Goodell address lack of diversity and related race issues. Goodell’s responses largely amounted to aspirational assurances that the league took those issues seriously. Trotter argues that when he questioned Goodell he was not merely acting as a journalist. He was also an NFL employee engaged in “protective activity,” an employment law term referring to an employee addressing or gaining evidence for unlawful discrimination or retaliation.
In addition to monetary demands, Trotter seeks a court-ordered monitor to review the NFL’s hiring practices, including those of teams, the commissioner’s office and league-run newsrooms. These remedies would mean the NFL, long known for valuing control and privacy, would have to report its employment decisions and workplace culture to someone outside the league.
In a statement, the league says it “strongly disputes” Trotter’s “specific allegations” and insists it “has made significant strides in improving diversity and inclusion.”
When they answer Trotter’s complaint in the coming weeks and move for its dismissal, attorneys for the league are likely to raise several arguments.
First, the league will contend that Trotter was let go as part of a cost-reduction plan implemented in May that affected its employees who work for NFL Media. In its statement on Tuesday, the league said Trotter’s departure “was one of many difficult decisions … to address a challenging economy and changing media environment.” In other words, the league will say Trotter’s contract wasn’t extended because of financial considerations, not because of retaliation or performance. It might add that even though Trotter was given assurances months earlier, the financial outlook for NFL Media had worsened in the intervening time.
Second, the league could argue that, as a private employer, it has the right to terminate employees who speak out against the company. Although Trotter was acting as a reporter, he was a reporter for a league-owned media platform. There is an inherent conflict of interest with reporters attempting to be objective about a company while being employed by that same company. But the NFL can insist Trotter was aware of that conflict when he took the job and ought to have been more sensitive about it.
Third, the league might argue that Trotter somehow underperformed. This would be a difficult argument to make if not supported by facts. Notably, Trotter received multiple journalism awards while employed by the NFL. In 2021, the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches awarded him the Excellence in Media Award. Last month, the Pro Football Writers Association and Pro Football Hall of Fame awarded Trotter the Bill Nunn Jr. Award for outstanding coverage. It doesn’t seem likely the league can credibly say Trotter deserved to be let go.
An employment contract, and/or the workplace policy that governs employment, might also contain an arbitration or grievance clause. The NFL has used an arbitration clause in Flores’ lawsuit to secure the dismissal of claims related to employment with the Dolphins. However, Trotter told Sportico his contract with the NFL had no arbitration or grievance clause. That will make it more difficult for the NFL to secure a dismissal of the case.
Eric Jackson contributed to this story.
(This story was updated in the final paragraph with information on Trotter’s contract.)