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Jim Trotter’s Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Makes Working For NFL Network Sound Like A Nightmare

Jim Trotter smiles during a media appearance.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

NFL reporter Jim Trotter filed a lawsuit Tuesday in New York, accusing the NFL and its media arm, NFL Network, of racial discrimination. Trotter, whose contract was allowed to expire in March after five years at NFL Network and who now works for The Athletic, says that he was let go despite good professional standing as retaliation for publicly challenging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the league's lack of diversity at pretty much every layer above player, and including at the league-owned cable channel.

According to a timeline laid out in the lawsuit (embedded below), NFL Vice President of On-Air Talent Management Sandra Nunez told Trotter in Nov. 2022 that she expected his contract to be renewed and indicated that NFL Network might even be interested in expanding his role. The about-face that ended with Trotter's effective termination came in early March, a few weeks after Trotter participated in Goodell's annual televised "State of the League" press conference ahead of the 2023 Super Bowl. During that press conference, Trotter brought up the absolute absence of black people in senior leadership positions at NFL Network, and a lack of full-time black employees on the news desk, which he described as "a problem, because we cover a league who, according to league data, the player population is 60 to 70 percent black." The concern, which Trotter asked Goodell to address, was that he and Goodell had had virtually the same exchange a year earlier and that the league had subsequently made no evident progress to improve racial diversity at its media arm. Goodell seemed flustered by the question and responded grumpily about not having the stats at hand to give a complete answer, and quickly moved on.

According to the lawsuit, on March 1 Nunez was suddenly questioning whether Trotter was "in alignment" with the NFL; by mid-March Trotter had reported up the chain "that he was not being given assignments" in retaliation for the exchange with Goodell. On March 24, Trotter learned from his agent that NFL Network had declined to renew his contract.

It sounds like Trotter endured a lot of ugly stuff at NFL Network, while waiting for NFL leadership to get its act together on matters of race and diversity. According to the lawsuit, another NFL reporter alleged during a 2020 NFL Media video conference having witnessed Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula getting super-duper racist on the topic of social activism among black NFL players:

The purpose of the meeting, during the middle of the pandemic, was to connect people who were not working together in-person and discuss various stories people were working on.

During the meeting, an NFL Media reporter described a conversation he had with Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula in which Mr. Pegula was speaking about the recent emphasis on social activism by NFL players, and in particular support for Black Lives Matter.

As reported, Mr. Pegula stated that, “If the Black players don’t like it here, they should go back to Africa and see how bad it is.” This remark was so offensive and racist that the people in the meeting appeared to be frozen, unsure how to even react.

Trotter says he immediately asked his direct manager and his boss's boss, a man named Todd Sperry, the Executive Editor of NFL Network, for "a discussion about what Mr. Pegula had said given that it was so highly offensive and racist." Trotter says he was told that the two men would decide later "how to handle the matter." Trotter followed up "on a near weekly basis" but "was repeatedly brushed off," until after a year of frustration he was told "New York says it’s an HR matter and that’s the end of it.”

Pegula, in a statement released Tuesday by the Bills, denied ever uttering the remark, calling the unnamed NFL Media reporter's allegation "absolutely false," and saying that he is "personally disgusted that [his] name is associated with this complaint."

In 2020, according to the lawsuit, Trotter wound up in a conversation at the annual Hall of Fame Game with Will McClay, vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, and McClay's boss, segregation dabbler and longtime non-hirer-of-black-head-coaches Jerry Jones. The topic: Why NFL teams persistently decline to hire black people into decision-making roles, which Trotter posed as a question directly to the league's most powerful owner:

In response to Mr. Trotter, Mr. Jones dodged the question and stated that players get a large percentage of league revenue and the majority of players are Black. In effect, Mr. Jones was stating that Black people should “be happy for what they have” and not seek further advancement of their rights, positions in society or equality.

Mr. Trotter reiterated his question, and Mr. Jones responded, “I’m starting to feel a little defensive.” However, notwithstanding Mr. Jones’ previous answer or history of conduct, Mr. Trotter made it clear that he was not attacking him, or even speaking about the Cowboys, but just asking about the league generally.

Mr. Jones finally responded: “If Blacks feel some kind of way, they should buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.”

In Oct. 2021, Trotter told his supervisor at NFL Network that he intended to describe Jones's comment on-air during a scheduled appearance on NFL Now, during a planned discussion about Jon Gruden's awful, ugly emails, which had been leaked to media over the preceding days. Trotter's supervisor took this to Sperry, who soon directed Trotter in writing to "refrain from discussing the Jerry Jones quote" until Trotter, his boss, and Sperry could meet together to discuss whether there was "any additional context" to consider. According to the lawsuit, at the subsequent meeting Trotter was "instructed" by his bosses not to mention Jones's comments on-air, and so he did not.

There's more in here, about other instances when Trotter says NFL Network leadership killed stories and reporting projects that were unfavorable to the league's image, about what Trotter describes as the failure of owners and executives to participate in good faith in the league's diversity initiatives, and about senior NFL leadership in general seeming to treat as an annoyance an employee who takes them seriously when they say that diversity and inclusion are a league-wide priority.

“The NFL has claimed it wants to be held accountable regarding diversity, equity and inclusion,” Trotter said in a statement, per The New York Times. “I tried to do so, and it cost me my job.”

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