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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Law

NFL Arbitrator Awards Former Cardinals Exec $3 Million for Defamation

  • Arizona’s former vice president of player personnel alleged he was mistreated by ownership.
  • Part of that issue stemmed from an alleged burner phone scheme hatched by owner Michael Bidwill.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL season doesn’t kick off for another five months, but the Cardinals have already tallied their first loss, this one in court. 

An NFL arbitrator appointed by commissioner Roger Goodell awarded Terry McDonough, the team’s former vice president of player personnel, $3 million for “defamatory statements” the team made about him, according to a Monday filing in Arizona federal court. (The same arbitrator denied McDonough’s contract-based claims of retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.)

The arbitration request was originally directed to Goodell almost a year ago. In the filing, McDonough accused Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill of ordering him to break NFL rules: He claims that Bidwill wanted him and then coach Steve Wilks to communicate via burner phones with the team’s GM, Steve Keim, during the 2018 training camp, a period when Keim was suspended, stemming from a DUI arrest.

In his original arbitration demand, McDonough said that when he told Bidwill of his concerns about the burner phones, Bidwill interrupted him “and started screaming at him at a high volume, accusing McDonough of insubordination and telling McDonough that he didn’t ‘like his attitude.’” A day later, Bidwill was said to have “summoned McDonough to his office and told McDonough he was ‘writing him up’ for unprofessional conduct in the workplace as a result of the [burner phone] discussion … and an alleged argument [the previous month] between McDonough and Steve Keim.”

McDonough’s defamation claim stemmed from the statement the Cardinals put out in response to the arbitration demand, which called McDonough’s claims “wildly false, reckless, and an opportunistic ploy for financial gain.” (That statement also went on to accuse McDonough of domestic violence, which McDonough denied.) The ruling declared that McDonough had proved “that the Respondents made ‘false statements’ as required for his defamation claim.” 

McDonough, who originally sued for more than $100 million in damages, was awarded $600,000 for emotional distress, $150,000 for harm to reputation, and punitive damages of $2.25 million. 

Meanwhile, U.S. District Court arbitrator Jeffrey Mishkin dismissed McDonough’s contract-related claims and ordered him to pay the Cardinals $45,000, mainly in attorney fees, for a breach of confidentiality and their successful defense of his claim. Mishkin wrote McDonough “has proven his claim for defamation” but “failed to prove his claims” for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and retaliation under the Arizona Employment Protection Act.

In response, the Cardinals said in a written statement: “We are pleased with the arbitrator’s decision dismissing all of Terry McDonough’s employment claims and finding that there was nothing improper about his dismissal from the team. As for Mr. McDonough’s other claim, we respect the arbitrator’s determination that our initial statement went too far. We accept responsibility for that statement and are grateful that the arbitration is now resolved.”

McDonough started working for the Cardinals in 2013, but he was relieved of his duties in January 2023. Three months later, he filed the arbitration demand.

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