Patriots Blast Razorback Foundation as Bielema Case Heats Up

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The New England Patriots’ stake in former assistant coach Bret Bielema’s multimillion dollar litigation with the Razorback Foundation is expanding. As the team forcefully rejects insinuations it partook in an illegal conspiracy, its role in the case has become more central.

In a Jan. 16 letter, attorney Brandon Bigelow—a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Boston and counsel to the Patriots—lambasted the Foundation for engaging in a “gross misinterpretation of documents the Patriots produced.” The letter was sent to attorney Marshall Ney, a partner at Friday, Eldredge & Clark in Arkansas and counsel to the Foundation.

A portion of Bigelow’s letter is excerpted in a court filing submitted by Bielema’s attorney, Tom Mars, on Friday. A day earlier, Ney filed a motion to leave in order to file an amended counterclaim. In his filing, Ney implied the Patriots and possibly head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft could be named co-defendants.

“During the course of discovery,” Ney wrote to Judge P.K. Holmes III, “the Foundation has received documents from the New England Patriots that demonstrate the Patriots’ involvement in Bielema and [Neil] Cornrich’s scheme to place Bielema in a low-paying position with the Patriots while he was still receiving payments from the Foundation.”

The Patriots recently turned over 458 pages of documents in response to a Foundation subpoena. The Foundation believes that several pages support its theory that Bielema, whom the University of Illinois hired last month as head coach, conspired with Cornrich (agent to both Bielema and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick) to negotiate an unreasonably low salary. This was supposedly done so that Bielema’s Patriots earnings wouldn’t decrease the Foundation’s obligation.

The Foundation agreed to pay Bielema $12 million in a buyout after his firing as Arkansas Razorbacks head coach in 2107. That dollar amount was subject to reduction by Bielema’s earnings from other jobs—up to a point. Bielema could annually earn up to a range of $100,000 to $150,000 without those earnings triggering the offset. Court documents indicate the Patriots initially hired Bielema as a draft consultant for $25,000. He was then bumped up to special assistant to Belichick, with a salary of $100,000. By 2019, he had been promoted to assistant coach, with a salary of $250,000.

Bielema’s attorneys and now Patriots attorneys forcefully reject the Foundation’s theory as illogical, describing Bielema’s situation as that of a fired college coach who was given what could be described as a coveted opportunity to assist an NFL legend. “The Patriots,” Bigelow insisted, “paid Mr. Bielema a fair and reasonable sum for this work and undoubtedly could have offered him substantially less for the work he performed.” Patriots assistant coaches salaries are reportedly low compared to other teams.

Bigelow added:

It is obvious that what the Foundation is really doing is seeking improper leverage in a simple breach of contract dispute with a former coach. . . . As this matter proceeds, you also should consider how it might appear to others for the Foundation to be asserting frivolous claims against and harassing a professional football team for simply providing an opportunity to a fired college football coach.

While the addition of the Patriots to the litigation would be a game-changer, that possibility now seems unlikely. In arguing that the Foundation lacks a valid reason to amend its complaint, Mars on Friday signaled the Foundation’s proposed changes would be minimal. “None of the proposed additional language [by the Foundation],” Mars assured, “adds anything to the Foundation’s claims for relief.”

If the Foundation intends to add the Patriots as a defendant, Mars probably wouldn’t have so definitively downplayed the Foundation’s objectives.

Late Friday, Judge Holmes issued a ruling with regard to the Foundation’s intent to amend its claims.

The judge noted, “because the Foundation intends to ask for leave to amend its pleadings in the near future, there is a looming possibility of substantial changes to this litigation.” He cautioned that he “has not seen the amended pleading.” Therefore, Judge Holmes reasoned, he is in “no position yet to agree or disagree with [Mars’s] evaluation” that the amended pleading wouldn’t “substantially change anything about this litigation”.

The judge ruled the Foundation may file a proposed amended claim under seal. The Foundation must also serve a copy on the Patriots, who “should be given some notice and opportunity to intervene before information it designated [as trade secrets or otherwise private] loses confidentiality.” Judge Holmes says he will then “review the filing and determine the best mechanism for allowing parties and interested nonparties to be heard on the issue.”

While Arkansas’s Isaac C. Parker Federal Courthouse is roughly 1,600 miles from Gillette Stadium, some members of the Patriots might soon become familiar with it. The jury trial start is scheduled to start on June 1, 2021.

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