Former NFL reporter Jim Trotter, who had been with NFL Network for five years, filed suit on September 12, 2023 in the United States District Court Southern District of New York against the NFL, NFL Enterprises LLC, and NFL Network Services, LLC, alleging racial discrimination on the part of the NFL and NFL Network. Trotter, who is Black, alleged that his contract was not renewed in March of 2023 in retaliation for continuing to challenge NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others regarding the NFL’s lack of diversity. Trotter is now employed as a columnist for The Athletic. Trotter said in a statement that “The N.F.L. has claimed it wants to be held accountable regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. I tried to do so, and it cost me my job.”
The complaint alleges Trotter’s contract was not renewed directly because he “challenged Commissioner Roger Goodell and others regarding the NFL’s record of race discrimination and lack of diversity. During his tenure, Mr. Trotter repeatedly called out the NFL for refusing to address long-standing, systemic and institutional discrimination within coaching ranks, within the NFL league office and within the NFL Media newsroom.” Wigdor LLP, the law firm representing Trotter, is also the law firm representing Brian Flores in connection with his race discrimination class action case against the NFL and various teams. In a huge potential blow to the NFL, Flores’s lawsuit is being allowed to continue in the court system, outside of the NFL’s internal arbitration process. According to Trotter’s complaint, Sandra Nunez, a vice president who oversees NFL Network’s on-air talent, told Trotter’s agent in November of 2022 that she “could not envision any reason why his contract would not be renewed” and even asked if he would like an expanded role. Then, in February of 2023, Trotter made a series of critical comments to Commissioner Goodell at a news conference about the NFL’s commitment to diversity. Trotter additionally asked Goodell why a Black person had never been hired as a senior manager in the NFL Network’s newsroom. Following questions about whether or not he was in “alignment” with the NFL, Nunez informed Trotter’s agent March 24th that Trotter’s contract would not be renewed. Trotter is seeking damages to be determined at trial and the appointment of a court-ordered monitor to investigate the NFL’s policies surrounding diversity.
The causes of action pertaining to Trotter’s treatment by the NFL and NFL Network are rather narrow and seem disjointed from the narrative in the complaint, which gives a history of racial discrimination in the NFL, including a discussion of the alleged blackballing of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, unless the entirety of the NFL’s stance towards diversity can be taken as proof of ”disparate treatment [and] a hostile work environment” leading to the “termination of … employment and/or refusing to extend.” Trotter is alleging discrimination and retaliation under Section 1981 of the federal Civil Rights Act, under the New York State Human Rights Act, and under the New York City Human Rights Act.
The complaint contains explosive allegations about specific, racialized comments made by NFL owners Jerry Jones and Terry Pegula. According to the complaint, Pegula’s comment was relayed to Trotter by a network colleague during a September 2020 video conference attended by about 40 NFL Media employees in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. According to Trotter’s complaint, the NFL Media staffer recounted Pegula saying, “If the Black players don’t like it here, they should go back to Africa and see how bad it is.”
Pegula categorically denied making the comment, and issued a statement saying, “I am horrified that anyone would connect me to an allegation of this kind. Racism has no place in our society and I am personally disgusted that my name is associated with this complaint.”
While it seems as though there may be a disconnect between what is being alleged – retaliatory firing for a discriminatory reason – and the remedy, including mandated overall efforts to improve the NFL’s actions around issues of diversity, the questions that Trotter raises are all relevant, if not actionable. One of the focuses of the complaint is the ultimate ineffectiveness of the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule, introduced in 2003 under threat of civil action, stipulates that teams include nonwhite candidates and women in interviews for open positions in coaching and executive roles. Currently, six of the league’s 32 head coaches are people of color. Given the recent Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina,striking down affirmative action programs in college admissions, it is at least plausible that an employer-backed program like the Rooney Rule could face a legal challenge. The Rooney Rule does not create any mandates for hiring nonwhite candidates and women and, in fact, is criticized for not going far enough to foster diversity in hiring. However, a group founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum recently sued law firms Morrison & Foerster and Perkins Coie over fellowship programs aimed at increasing diversity in the legal profession that the group maintains discriminate against white applicants. The Court ruling did not outlaw corporate programs aimed at addressing issue of diversity, as the case addressed only laws governing education, but it appears some groups are attempting to expand the ruling. Jim Trotter’s lawsuit may have come at a pivotal point in the efforts to create workplaces that value and champion people from all backgrounds equally.