Properly Applying Discipline: Using Professional Sports as an Example

David Keene, II
August 12, 2008 — 2,427 views  
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Last month the Boston Red Sox traded star left-fielder Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team deal.  The trade was the culmination of an employer/employee problem that had been simmering for quite some time.  For years, Ramirez complained about not making enough money and a lack of respect, appeared interested in playing for the Red Sox hated rival, the New York Yankees, and was a clubhouse malcontent. 

During the times that Ramirez created one controversy after another, management coddled him.  The phrase “Manny being Manny” was coined to describe his amazing hitting but poor defensive play, absentmindedness, and sometimes churlishness.  As long as he hit, management tolerated his shortcomings.  Eventually, however, “Manny being Manny” became a euphemism for petulance that could no longer be tolerated.  The matter finally boiled over during July of this year, following these events which occurred over the prior few months:

Ramirez started having “knee trouble” when scheduled to face certain All-Star caliber pitchers; he started complaining to the press that the Red Sox did not respect him because they failed to pick up the option year on his contract halfway through the current season; he physically assaulted a 64 year old management official for not working hard enough to obtain free tickets to a sold-out away game, and; during a nationally-televised game, he held up a sign in the dugout that said “I’m going to Green Bay for Brett Favre Straight Up!” 

Shortly thereafter, Manny traded, not straight up and not to Green Bay, but as part of a larger deal and to the Dodgers.

The length of time (years) it took to “terminate” Ramirez and the weak approach management took over that same length of time serves as an example of how not to apply discipline.  On the other hand, the way that the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League handled their star malcontent, Terrell Owens, is a perfect example of how to properly apply discipline. 

Proper Administration of Discipline
Terrell Owens was a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles until November 5, 2005. Owens, a talented player who helped the San Francisco 49ers to five (5) playoff berths and appeared in several Pro Bowls, was traded to the Eagles in the summer of 2004. At that time, Owns signed a seven (7) year contract with the Eagles. Prior to Owens’s arrival in Philadelphia, the Eagles won numerous division championships but repeatedly fell short of the Super Bowl. The 2004-05 season was one of huge success for both Owens and the Eagles and finally culminated a Super Bowl appearance, the first for the Eagles in twenty-four (24) years.

Problems Begin
Shortly after the Super Bowl in 2005, Owens publicly informed the Eagles, through the media, that he was unhappy with his contract. More specifically, Owens publicly stated that he was underpaid, that his contract needed to be renegotiated, and that if the Eagles did not increase his compensation, he would become a problem employee. Starting in April of 2005, Owens began to make good on his promise to be a problem employee: he repeatedly made disparaging comments about the Eagles management and quarterback Donovan McNabb, and repeatedly gave television interviews disparaging the Eagles and McNabb, including stating that the Eagles were “low class” and that the team would be better off without McNabb, whom he referred to as a “hypocrite.”  Additionally, Owens displayed a complete lack of respect to his coaches by refusing to speak to one coach, parking in coaches’ reserved parking spaces, and refusing to open his playbook during meetings.  Further acts of misconduct by Owens included refusing to speak to McNabb, telling his head coach to “shut up,” and having a physical altercation with a management official.

Eventually, after one last inflammatory statement to the media followed by his refusal to speak to McNabb, the Eagles demanded a public apology. At a press conference, Owens read only a portion of the agreed apology. In response to his actions, the Eagles suspended Owens, without pay, for four (4) games and deactivated him for the rest of the season, meaning that he would technically still be an employee but that the Eagles would not let him practice or play for the remainder of the season.

The National Football League Players’ Association—Owens’s union—filed a grievance, demanding that the four-game suspension be overturned and the exclusion from games and practices thereafter be reversed, and that Owens be fully reinstated with back pay. The Eagles asked that the grievance be denied.  After reviewing the documents and hearing from witnesses, the Arbitrator upheld the discipline in its entirety.  Some of the key evidence in this decision was a series of letters written by the Eagles to Owens, specifically stating that he had broken team rules and also detailing what was and was not acceptable behavior on the part of an employee.  The Arbitrator found that Owens’s comments and misdeeds had a detrimental impact on his team, that he was given numerous opportunities to change his behavior and refused to do so, and that he had been warned repeatedly that he ran the risk of incurring discipline.

Employer Take-Aways
While your company may not be as high profile as the Eagles, all employers can draw three (3) important points from the arbitration decision and apply them to their companies:

Be sure to document all misconduct. The Eagles took care to send Owens four (4) letters documenting his misconduct, including responding to Owens’s agent’s request for greater specificity. In every single letter, the Eagles explained what Owens had done wrong, how it negatively impacted the team, and how his conduct and attitude needed to change so that the team could work together as a team.  Clearly state what discipline you are imposing or will be imposing if a further act occurs. From the very first letter, the Eagles made it clear that Owens was at risk of being disciplined, up to and including suspension and separation from the team.

Seemingly minor acts of misconduct can add up. Many of Owens’s misbehaviors seem trivial, but when removed from the professional football context and placed in your company, the larger problem becomes clear. What would you do if an employee parked in a manager’s or handicapped parking space? And then he decided to stop talking to his sales manager, or told that manager to “shut up”? And then skipped mandatory safety meetings? Although individually each of these incidents is unlikely to constitute a terminable infraction, in the aggregate they make for a nightmare employment situation that every manager and business owner wants to avoid.

Make sure that all executives and managers are publicly in agreement.  The Eagles made sure that all management officials moved in lockstep with one another to avoid the appearance that there was disagreement within the team. Further, they had one person speak for the team, instead of several, so that there was no way to drive a wedge between managers. Even if executives disagreed behind closed doors, to the public there was only one unified position.

Conclusion: Not all employers will encounter a situation where they have to discipline and suspend or trade an employee making millions of dollars a year who decides to become a disciplinary problem and publicly embarrasses his managers and co-workers.  But all employers will—at one time or another—face a problem employee who requires discipline, whether in compliance with an employee handbook or union contract.  How will you respond—as the Red Sox or the Eagles?

David Keene, II


David Keene, an associate in Baker Donelson's Tri-Cities office, concentrates his practice in the area of labor and employment law. Mr. Keene has experience in a multitude of labor and employment areas including negotiating collective bargaining agreements for both private and public sector employers; representing employers in grievance and issue arbitrations; representing employers in all matters, including elections and unfair labor practices, before the National Labor Relations Board and state labor boards; helping clients maintain union-free workforces; handling unemployment claims from initial applications for benefits through court appeals; counseling clients on a multitude of federal employment laws, including the ADA, FMLA, ADEA, and FLSA; litigating employment discrimination claims; and representing individuals against unions. Mr. Keene has been published in The Labor Lawyer, Labor Law Journal, and numerous other publications, and has taught seminars on a wide variety of labor and employment topics.