Racism in the NFL and Jim Trotter's Lawsuit Against the League
Jim Trotter filed a lawsuit against the NFL, alleging illegal and discriminatory employment practices against him personally. But he's also attempting to blow the lid open on a leaguewide problem.
Jim Trotter, formerly of the NFL Network and currently writing for the Athletic, filed a lawsuit against the NFL alleging a pattern of discriminatory behavior that extends beyond the newsroom, into the league office and among the ownership.
You can find the lawsuit here.
Trotter is litigating this through standard federal and New York state law. At the federal level, his legal team is specifically citing 42 U.S. Code § 1981 – often referred to as “Section 1981” of the legal code, a reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Historically, the courts have found this to apply in employment contexts to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color and ethnicity. The courts have also found that this prohibits retaliation, one of the charges alleged by Trotter.
While Trotter may indeed be looking for damages, a primary goal is for the courts to implement a method of investigating and monitoring the NFL’s employment practices.
In this sense, Trotter’s suit is more than a legal battle about his termination from the NFL Network, but towards the NFL as a whole – and the scope of the lawsuit is meant to launch the specific experiences of Trotter into a larger campaign for racial justice inside the NFL.
A quick summary before getting into the details of the suit. Jim Trotter alleges:
That his workplace inside NFL Media consistently refused to make an effort to hire Black leadership or fill key positions in the newsroom with Black employees.
That his workplace went out of its way to protect NFL owners and inhibit Trotter’s reporting on their racism
That NFL Media persistently demanded that Trotter forgo journalistic integrity to that end
That the owners and NFL persistently engaged in racial discrimination
This includes allegations pertaining to individual owners, teams and their organizational culture and the NFL league office
That his workplace illegally retaliated against him for bringing attention to the diversity problem in NFL Media and the racism problem in the NFL
There are eye-catching specifics in his lawsuit. Let’s break it down.
Wide Left is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Jim Trotter Revealed Two New Instances of Racist Owner Conduct in the NFL
The most explosive elements of the report involve the behavior of two current NFL owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Terry Pegula of the Buffalo Bills, but those are two elements of a much larger argument that Trotter and his team are making about the nature of the NFL.
The two specific allegations are fairly important, though. Trotter’s legal team accuses Pegula of saying, in reference to player protests about police violence against Black people, “If the Black players don’t like it here, they should go back to Africa and see how bad it is.”
This is not an allegation that Trotter brings forth from his own personal interactions with Pegula; Trotter instead references a meeting during an NFL Media videoconference call, where one reporter described a conversation he had with Pegula.
Though the meeting was held with 40 employees, including two of Trotter;s superiors, he may need evidence from the reporter himself that this conversation with Pegula occurred, or that the reporter heard it directly from Pegula and created a contemporary record of it.
Trotter’s legal team may have already engaged that reporter in order to procure that evidence when needed. If not, they will instead have to rely on some of the other allegations surrounding NFL owners discussed in the document.
This isn’t the only specific story mentioning Pegula in the lawsuit. A more well-documented example with discusses Pegula’s reaction to the emerging controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick. In 2018, the New York Times reported that Pegula suggested that Kaepernick’s absence from the league – which the lawsuit refers to as blackballing – was primarily a media relations problem and that the NFL needs a spokesperson to improve the league’s image. That spokesperson, Pegula argued, should be Black.
The lawsuit argues that this characterizes the NFL’s overall approach – that they want to appear inclusive when it helps with public relations but not engage with actual solutions to real problems.
The Kaepernick story provides its own set of arguments for Trotter’s larger point about the NFL’s failure to foster an environment of inclusion, but that wasn’t the second story that drew headlines.
Instead, it was the allegation that Jones, as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, repeatedly expressed to Trotter that the league should not be concerned about the concerns or welfare of Black people, especially Black players.
At the 2020 Hall of Fame game, Trotter had an opportunity to talk to Cowboys Vice President of Player Personnel, Will McClay, about the paucity of players drafted from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Trotter suggested that one issue inhibiting HBCU prospects was the lack of Black executives in primary decision-making roles. This is particularly prescient for McClay, who is Black, and plays an enormous role in the Cowboys’ player acquisition strategy but does not have the final say – that belongs to Jerry Jones and his son, Stephen Jones.
Jones joined the discussion, according to the suit, and refused to answer a question about why so few general managers (and equivalent) were Black in a league that was 60 to 70 percent Black.
Jones responded that players get a large percentage of league revenue, ignoring the point completely. The lawsuit suggests that this reflected a sentiment that Jones believed that Black people should, in effect, be satisfied with the current state of affairs and not seek out positions of power or concern themselves with equality.
More directly, Trotter alleges that Jones said “If Blacks feel some kind of way, they should buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.”
Trotter continued engaging in the conversation by pointing out that the league’s rule requiring primary owners buy at least 30 percent of the team with no more than $1 billion in debt prevented the possibility of that happening. The lawsuit further points out that this attitude reflects that equality and rights for Black people should only be the concern of other Black people.
This is not the only incident mentioned in the lawsuit involving Jones. Trotter’s team also brings up a photo recently surfaced by the Washington Post depicting Jerry Jones, then a sophomore, at North Little Rock High School in Arkansas as white students protested to block Black students from attending.
The Post pointed out in their story that Jones’ excuse – that he was just there to observe what was happening out of curiosity – doesn’t make much sense given the geography of the location.
As the Post argues, “Jones had to scurry around the North Little Rock Six to reach the top of the stairs before the Black students completed their walk up to the schoolhouse door. And while Jones offered a common explanation of the confrontation — that it was the work of older white supremacists — most of those surrounding the six young Black men were teenagers.”
The Post also shared stories about Jones’ father and grandfather. Though he is not either of those men, his response to their history on race was also revealing. After being asked about the fact that his father ran for office, opposing federal desegregation mandates on the grounds of “states’ rights,” a common racist dogwhistle, Jones argued that states rights were a good thing and that he felt betrayed that minorities did not vote for his father after he did them the favor of not segregating the grocery store he owned.
Jones’ grandfather was a member of the White Citizens’ Council in Arkansas and its Little Rock branch the Capital Citizens’ Council — two organizations the reemergent KKK drew upon. A leader on that council argued that integration was a communist plot “founded in Moscow … to mongrelize the White race in America.” The council organized protests of desegregation at local high schools.
In response to this information, Jones argued that his grandfather was a hard worker, an irrelevant point.
His father and grandfather were involved in opposing desegregation while he stood on the steps of North Little Rock High School as his fellow white students barricaded and harassed Black students attempting to enter the school. That should not be lost on the NFL – especially as Jones has not disavowed his actions and had attempted to defend his father and grandfather when confronted with their racism.
What Trotter alleges and what others, including the Post, have reported are in alignment. When Jones spoke at the NFL Accelerator Program, he emphasized that it was resourcefulness and hard work more than race that mattered when it came to hiring, and regaled the audience with a story about using his connections with the Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is played, to land a deal with an oil executive.
He seems blind to the idea that not everyone will have access to those kinds of connections.
Jones and Pegula are not the only current or former owners implicated by the lawsuit.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial