As the “#MeToo” movement has empowered victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak up, a number of prominent individuals in the business, entertainment, media and political worlds—most notably Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey—have been implicated. On Tuesday, several noteworthy figures in the sports broadcasting world were also implicated. Jami Cantor, a former wardrobe stylist for the NFL Network, filed an amended complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court against NFL Enterprises. In it, she names producers and on-air talent as subjecting her to unlawful discrimination and retaliation. Those named include former executive producer Eric Weinberger, who is now president of the Bill Simmons Media Group, as well as current and former on-air TV analysts Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor, Warren Sapp and Heath Evans.
Cantor, whom the NFL Network fired for allegedly stealing property and who filed an original (and less detailed) complaint in October, demands financial compensation for non-economic injuries related to mental suffering, emotional anguish and humiliation as well as economic injuries for loss of wages, salary, benefits, back pay, front pay and future lost income and benefits. Bloomberg first reported on Cantor's suit.
Lawsuit depicts the NFL Network workplace as sexist, ageist and abusive
The details shared in Cantor’s amended complaint are deeply disturbing. Before describing them, it is worth noting that they are allegations at this stage and have not—yet—been proven in court. With that caveat in mind, Cantor, through her attorneys Laura Horton and Flor Dery, levels serious accusations against her former employer. For example, she charges that Weinberger sent her nude pictures and would also text her with comments such as saying she “was put on earth to pleasure [him].” Cantor also contends that Evans sent her nude photos. If Cantor possesses these texts, it would be very powerful evidence of discrimination and a hostile work environment.
Other allegations in Cantor’s complaint are based not on physical or electronic evidence but rather on her recollections of events and conversations. For instance, she claims that Faulk would ask her “deeply personal and invasive questions about [her] sex life, such as her favorite sex position, whether she liked oral sex, and whether she dated black men.” Cantor also asserts that Faulk would greet her by “fondling her breasts and groping her behind.”
Cantor also recalls Sapp urinating in front of her in the restroom and telling her “Sorry mama, but your office shouldn’t be our s****er.” Further, she claims that Evans would make sexually inappropriate comments to her, such as “you’re making me horny,” and that he “needed to get in you deep and hard.” Cantor charges that her complaints about this alleged misconduct did not lead to corrective action. Cantor's recitation of facts also implicates Eric Davis and Donovan McNabb, both of whom host radio shows on ESPN Radio. Davis, Cantor asserts, made lewd comments around her while McNabb allegedly sent her inappropriate texts.
Cantor’s employment with the NFL Network ended in October 2016, when she was fired after being accused of stealing clothes. Cantor categorically denies the accusation and insists that the NFL Network fired her as punishment for not going along with the abuse. Cantor also contends that the NFL Network has defamed her and made it difficult for her to obtain other work. Further, Cantor points out that her age is relevant in how she was treated: she was 51 years old when fired and was replaced by a 30-year-old employee.
Understanding Cantor’s legal claims
Cantor’s amended complaint contains 11 “causes of action,” also known as claims. Most of the claims contend that Cantor was subjected to discrimination on the basis of her gender and age, or that she was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile workplace. She also includes a claim for defamation.
In arguing that she was subjected to discrimination, Cantor charges that she was treated less favorably than others because of her gender and age. NFL Network supervisors and employees, Cantor asserts, conspired to engage in such discrimination. Their “cold” and “callous” misconduct, Cantor claims, was designed to both humiliate and degrade her and to bully her into submission. Cantor also highlights that even NFL Network supervisors who themselves did not partake in misconduct were either aware of it happening or should have been aware. They, Cantor stresses, “failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.” From a legal standpoint, Cantor’s lawsuit would more likely prevail if she can prove that she alerted her supervisors about misconduct and they ignored or downplayed her concerns.
Evidence also matters. As mentioned above, if Cantor possesses the implicating texts sent by her male co-workers, she would have a powerful argument that her gender led to disparate—and hostile—treatment. Cantor also believes that pretrial discovery would lead to evidence showing that she was not the only victim. She believes there has been a “a statistically significant disparate impact on persons [who work at the NFL Network] based on their age and/or sex/gender.” A claim about a hostile work environment is normally strengthened if it can be shown that similarly situated employees were subjected to similarly unlawful treatment.
Cantor also stresses that the NFL Network retaliated against her for complaining. She contends that being subjected to “bullying, humiliating, mocking, and belittling” did not lead to corrective action. Eventually, as Cantor retells it, she suffered the ultimate form of workplace relationship: she was fired under false and libelous pretenses.
As to her defamation claim, Cantor charges that the NFL Network has made false representations about her to third persons. Such representations, Cantor asserts, include “accusations that Plaintiff violated company policies, stole company property, and nobody should work with her.” Cantor contends that such defamatory badmouthing has led to a reputation of her in the industry as a “dishonest and bad employee.” Whether Cantor possesses actual evidence of defamation remains to be seen. Texts, emails and witness statements from persons with whom NFL Network employees communicated would likely be crucial in a trial.
NFL Network: it’s apparent decision to not (yet) settle and how it will respond
As a starting point, it is interesting that the NFL Network was apparently unable to reach a financial settlement with Cantor before she filed an amended complaint that “named names” and became newsworthy. It’s unclear whether the two sides engaged in settlement negotiations, but most likely they did and it is most likely the NFL Network was warned that names would become public unless a financial settlement was reached. Perhaps the NFL Network is certain that Cantor’s allegations are false or grossly exaggerative and that the network will prevail in court. However, if Cantor possesses the aforementioned texts, she would begin with powerful pieces of evidence. Also, even if her legal arguments are ultimately unproven in court they are nonetheless damaging in and of themselves—particularly in this current social climate. It seems that the NFL Network realizes that as it has suspended Faulk, Evans and Taylor in response to Cantor’s amended complaint and the media attention it is stirring.
The NFL Network offered a statement late Monday night on the allegations: “Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor, and Heath Evans have been suspended from their duties at NFL Network pending an investigation into these allegations.” An ESPN spokesperson also used similar language: "We are investigating and McNabb and Davis will not appear on our networks as that investigation proceeds.“
In the coming weeks, the NFL Network will respond to Cantor’s amended complaint and will deny her claims. The NFL Network will also ask that the court dismiss Cantor’s lawsuit. If the lawsuit is not dismissed, the case would move to pretrial discovery where current and former NFL Network employees would have to testify under oath and share texts, emails and written notes. Depending on what is “discovered,” pretrial discovery could lead to serious embarrassment for individual persons associated with the NFL Network and possibly for persons associated with affiliated entities—most notably the NFL, which owns the NFL Network. The NFL Network would likely try to settle the case long before such pretrial discovery commences.
The NFL Network will also offer legal defenses. One likely defense will be to portray Cantor’s assertions as factually untrue or as grossly exaggerative. The NFL Network will contend that Cantor can’t show by a preponderance of evidence that any of her claims are true and that her conditions of employment never changed as a result of her interactions with male co-workers. Of course, if Cantor has the aforementioned texts, she begins with at least some damning evidence. If she can also establish her recollections of what NFL Network employees told her or acted around her, she would then obtain additional persuasive evidence of being subjected to discrimination and hostility. Cantor would likely need witnesses, such as former co-workers, to vouch for her recollections—otherwise it could lead to a “she said, he said” evidence problem where it may be unclear to jurors who is telling the truth.
The NFL Network might also bring up mitigating facts. For instance, the company probably has a workplace sexual harassment policy. If NFL Network employees were required to undergo training in the policy, the NFL Network could say that it took reasonable steps for an employer and that it should be judged accordingly. Such an argument would be strengthened if a workplace discrimination policy was actively enforced and if the network could show that there is a track record of employees being sanctioned when they violated the policy.
As an additional defense, the NFL Network might contend that Cantor erred from a procedural standpoint. For example, if Cantor knew that in order to file a sexual harassment complaint at the NFL Network she was obligated to inform the human resources department, but she instead notified a different department or her supervisor, the NFL Network might argue she did not take the necessary steps to notify the company.
The allegations impact multiple media organizations in the near term. Faulk appears on the network’s signature morning show, NFL GameDay Morning, and is one of the most prominent on-air faces. Evans has been part of NFL GameDay Live, which provides in-progress highlights and analysis, each Sunday during the season. McNabb works as a college football analyst for beIn Sports, a host on ESPN Radio and recently appeared as a guest last week on ESPN’s First Take. Davis works for ESPNLA Radio in Los Angeles and also was an NFL contributor to FS1 studio shows.
On Tuesday morning, a Ringer spokesperson issued this statement to SI.com: “These are very serious and disturbing allegations that we were made aware of today. We are placing Eric on leave indefinitely until we have a better understanding of what transpired during his time at the NFL, and we will conduct our own internal investigation.”
SI.com will keep you updated on Cantor’s lawsuit and its aftermath.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA and My Life in Basketball.
Richard Deitsch is SI’s media columnist and he also contributed to this report.