By: Jason Kaner*

Earlier this month, the Redskins dismissed General Manager Scot McCloughan after reports surfaced he had been drinking on the job. These reports directly contradicted statements issued by his agent, Peter Schaffer, a day before, strongly denying such allegations. His agent stated he was “very healthy” and in contact with the team moving forward.[i] McCloughan, who had been hired by the Redskins two years ago, had previously been dismissed from his front office roles in San Francisco and Seattle for struggles with alcohol that were well-publicized in a 2014 ESPN the Magazine article. A month after its publication, the Redskins, well aware of his previous struggles, hired him.

In recent months McCloughan had been shielded from reporters, and did not travel with the team to the NFL combine—leading Redskins radio broadcaster Chris Cooley to speculate that he was drinking again. McCloughan was allegedly infuriated the Redskins did not come to his defense in these allegations, and the situation soon spiraled out of control.[ii] A Washington Post article cited an “anonymous source” in the organization that claimed McCloughan had “multiple relapses due to alcohol” and “showed up to the locker room drunk multiple occasions;” he added that “this has been a disaster for 18 months.”[iii] Because McCloughan is being fired for cause rather than for a philosophical difference or performance reason, the Redskins will likely not be on the hook for the remaining two years of his contract, where the average salary for someone in McCloughan’s position is $3 million per year.[iv]

An interesting element to this story, however, is the conflicting reports coming out of the Washington Post itself. According to the same article, there were no outward indications he had been drinking or that it had interfered with his performance at all. Additionally, the article asserted that of the half dozen players interviewed, they all seemed to revere McCloughan and state they never saw him drink in the locker room.[v] Yet, the team painted a different picture, and their narrative is that after providing treatment and multiple opportunities to help their former general manager, it was time to move on from McCloughan. Another Washington Post writer, Mike Jones, tweeted, “was told late in season of jealousy up top and they’d one day use McCloughan drinking as excuse to can him.”[vi]

The issue between McCloughan and the team will ultimately lead to the filing of a grievance before the commissioner or a court of law, especially due to the fact that players stated they never saw him drink. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the smart move would be for the Redskins to reach a settlement with McCloughan and move on. Surmising that short of any evidence alcohol actually impaired his ability to do his job, this is nothing more than an effort to move on from an influential employee they no longer wanted by relying on a personal struggle they already knew about to justify not paying him. This could also result in Jones receiving a mandatory invite to testify in McCloughan’s potential grievance hearing.[vii]

McCloughan’s claim would be based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects employees diagnosed with alcoholism. However, employers still retain the right under the ADA to terminate employees for consuming alcohol on the job or if alcohol prevents them from doing their job.[viii] In college football, a little over a year ago, USC dealt with a similar situation when they fired head coach Steve Sarkisian after incidents with drinking. Sarkisian sued the school for damages in excess of over $30 million dollars stating that they violated multiple areas of the law in terminating him. [ix] The ADA provides that employers cannot discriminate against employees with disabilities that limit a major life activity, which includes their day-to-day job. Employees are also entitled to reasonable accommodations from their employers. Thus, even if some of the rumors of McCloughan’s drinking are true, the issue here is whether the team provided him with reasonable accommodations to deal with his addiction if he was still able to complete his job. Based on the protections in place by the law over employees who have the status of alcoholic, said employees can only be fired if they are actively abusing drugs and alcohol. Unlike Sarkisian, there is no video of McCloughan appearing drunk at a team meeting or event, and the “anonymous” reports of him drinking in the locker room were refuted not only by other front office personnel, but also players.

The hardest part comes down to what type of accommodation an employer can offer that is reasonable; which is in part based on the situation at hand, specifically what the employees’ duties are.[x] A common form of accommodation with respect to alcohol dependency is unpaid leave, which could explain McCloughan’s recent absence. Similarly, in Sarkisian’s case it was a red flag that he was given a leave of absence and then terminated shortly after the leave was given. It would be possible for McCloughan to contend that a termination while on leave of absence was unlawful. Nonetheless, it is difficult for an employee in the public light to do that because every aspect of their employment and history of alcohol abuse becomes public. For McCloughan, however, such repercussions and pursuing a suit should not be a problem because he himself previously opened up about his addiction in the widely circulated ESPN the Magazine article. While the truth about McCloughan’s dismissal remains ambiguous and as the dust begins to settle in Washington, a potential lawsuit is likely looming.


*Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2019, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

[i] Mike Florio, Agent: Scot McCloughan “very healthy,” alcohol not an issue, ProFootballTalk (March 9, 2017), http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2017/03/09/agent-scot-mccloughan-very-healthy-alcohol-not-an-issue/.

[ii] Brian McNally, McCloughan Saga Comes to Sad End in Washington, CBS DC (March 9, 2017), http://washington.cbslocal.com/2017/03/09/redskins-fire-gm-scot-mccloughan/.

[iii]  Liz Clarke, Redskins fire GM Scot McCloughan after two seasons, The Washington Post (March 9, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/redskins-fire-gm-scot-mccloughan-after-two-seasons/2017/03/09/652aa4f0-04fc-11e7-b9fa-ed727b644a0b_story.html?utm_term=.a5dc63ce5bf1.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Mike Florio, Report: Washington used drinking as excuse to fire Scot McCloughan, ProFootballTalk (March 9, 2017), http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2017/03/09/report-washington-used-drinking-as-excuse-to-fire-scot-mccloughan/.

[vii] Id.

[viii]  See McNally, supra note 2.

[ix] Michael McCann, Breaking down Steve Sarkisian’s lawsuit against USC, Sports Illustrated (December 7, 2015) http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/12/07/steve-sarkisian-usc-trojans-lawsuit-coach.

[x] David Kim, Alcoholism and how USC may have violated ADA by firing Steve Sarkisian, Entertain HR (October 19, 2015) http://blogs.hrhero.com/entertainhr/2015/10/19/alcoholism-and-how-usc-may-have-violated-the-ada-by-firing-steve-sarkisian/.

 

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