The old saying “don’t ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to” has come into focus in the contentious legal battle between New York Giants assistant coach Bret Bielema and the Razorback Foundation. Bielema’s attorneys insist the Foundation has advanced a theory of liability it knows to be false and has refrained from asking questions of witnesses whose answers—Bielema’s attorneys charge—would “debunk” the case.
One of those witnesses is New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The Foundation portrays the eight-time Super Bowl winner as a co-conspirator in a plot to have the 501(c)(3) nonprofit effectively subsidize Bielema’s salary while he worked for the Patriots in 2018 and 2019. Despite Belichick’s supposedly essential role, Bielema’s attorneys say the Foundation has not sought to question Belichick under oath.
The case centers on a breakdown in the contractual relationship between Bielema and the Foundation in the aftermath of Arkansas firing him as Razorbacks coach in 2017. Pursuant to a buyout, the Foundation agreed to pay Bielema $12 million over several years.
As is customary in buyouts, there were strings attached. Most relevantly, Bielema was obligated to use “best efforts” to land another job—any job—and a competitive salary. He also pledged compliance with an offset provision whereby he could annually earn up to a defined amount (ranging from $100,000 to $150,000) without that amount reducing the Foundation’s obligation.
Bielema, 50, maintains the Foundation still owes him $7 million. The Foundation sees it differently. It insists the former Big Ten coach of the year failed to use best efforts to land another job and accepted employment with the Patriots at a below-market salary while merely feigning interest in better-paying college jobs.
The litigation, which Bielema initiated in federal court in June, has spiraled well beyond discord over the buyout. The Foundation countersued Bielema in September and added his agent, Neil Cornrich, as a defendant. Cornrich is portrayed as integral to a supposed conspiracy to defraud the Foundation through the Patriots. Cornich is a prominent agent to Belichick and other NFL and college coaches and NFL players.
More recently, Bielema and Cornich have filed a joint motion for Rule 11 sanctions against the Foundation and its attorneys. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure imposes a requirement on attorneys to refrain from filing court documents that are frivolous, known to be untrue, completely speculative or designed to harass. A judge can issue Rule 11 sanctions in the form of monetary fines or dismissal of actions. The granting of Rule 11 sanctions is rare and ordinarily reserved for truly egregious instances of lawyering abuse.
In filings from both Monday and last week, Bielema and Cornrich, through attorney Tom Mars, contend the Foundation has knowingly advanced false claims in order to publicly denigrate Bielema and Cornrich. It has allegedly done so without credibly investigating the veracity of allegations.
For example, the Foundation asserts that former Razorbacks assistant coach Barry Lunney has “personal knowledge” of an alleged statement by Bielema that he wouldn’t pursue a head coach opening at Kansas State. This is relevant since it goes to the Foundation’s assertion that Bielema—knowing the Foundation was already on the hook to pay him—shunned the types of Division I head coaching jobs that would have paid him high salaries and, in turn, reduced the Foundation’s obligation.
Mars scoffs that this depiction of Lunney is “completely false,” maintaining that “the Foundation’s lawyers have never spoken or otherwise communicated with Coach Lunney about this case.” If they had, Mars says, “they would have known his testimony will be the opposite of what the Foundation attributes to him.” To that end, Mars includes a copy of a text from Lunney confirming that the Foundation’s attorneys have not interviewed him and that he never heard Bielema say or suggest that he didn’t want a DI head coaching job.
What Mars portrays as “blatant misrepresentation” of anticipated testimony extends to the Foundation’s theories about the Patriots and Belichick. The Foundation contends New England facilitated a fraudulent arrangement by contractually blocking Bielema from pursuing other, higher-paying jobs.
Mars maintains this is both literally and contextually untrue. Bielema’s Patriots contract, Mars charges, allowed him to gain permission to seek other jobs and he, with Cornich’s assistance, indeed pursued jobs.
Further, Mars charges, “Belichick has never ‘handcuffed’ a coach who wanted to leave during the term of their contract to accept a DI head coach position.” The lawyer says this was already known or suspected by the Foundation, which Mars alleges “never made any effort before filing its fraud and conspiracy claims to ask the Patriots whether that contract conflicted with Coach Bielema’s duties under the [buyout] or, if so, whether permission had been given as the contract itself allowed.”
“Why?” Mars rhetorically asks. “Because [the Foundation] couldn’t afford to hear the answer it had every reason to expect.”
Belichick is also mentioned several times in the pleadings. Mars notes that the Foundation’s list of witnesses omits New England employees, including Belichick. To the extent the team was “in” on the purported scheme, Patriots executives would seem like key witnesses.
Mars acknowledges the Foundation issued a subpoena duces tecum—a request for documents—to Belichick. As described by Mars, the subpoena compels the disclosure of documents related to Bielema’s employment with the team. However, the demand doesn’t ask for comparable salaries, an arguably relevant piece of information, given the Foundation’s claim that New England (which Sportico recently valued at $4.97 billion) underpaid Bielema.
Attorneys for the Foundation regard these issues in a much different light. In a court filing, they assert that Bielema’s legal team is using an attempt for Rule 11 sanctions as part of an abusive strategy. This alleged strategy involves “promises to humiliate the Foundation and its counsel” and “foul, unprofessional language directed at the Foundation, its counsel and others completely unassociated with this matter and engages in childish name-calling and finger-pointing.” The Foundation’s attorneys also highlight assurances by Cornrich that Bielema would only work for the Patriots in the short term in order to rehabilitate his reputation. He would then land another DI head coaching job in 2018.
While their rancor for one another seems high at the moment, attorneys for both Bielema and the Foundation have previously collaborated. They also share substantial ties to the University of Arkansas. If one were betting, they’ll likely resolve the litigation through an out-of-court settlement. But that could take some time and more hostility.