Rarely does a head coach fire an assistant coach on the spot mid-season. When it happens, legal questions invariably follow.
The New York Giants will have to find some of those answers after head coach Joe Judge abruptly terminated offensive line coach Marc Colombo on Wednesday. While initial media reports indicated the firing came on the heels of a fist fight between the two men—Colombo is 6’8” and 315 pounds and Judge, less—subsequent reports paint a different picture. They suggest that a heated verbal argument, devoid of punches, transpired between the pair when Judge informed Colombo of his firing.
No matter what happened, how the Giants handle Colombo’s firing will impact whether it has a fallout for the team and for Judge.
NFL assistant coaches are, like head coaches, employed through contracts that ordinarily contain language indicating when a firing is “for cause” or “without cause.” A firing “for cause” arises when the coach has engaged in unlawful or unethical conduct. It normally relieves the team of having to pay out the remainder of the deal; the coach is only due pay up to the date of the firing, along with any unpaid fringe benefits (such as payment of accrued, unused vacation time).
A “without cause” firing, in contrast, is far more often used to dismiss a coach. The coach is not portrayed as doing anything morally or legally wrong. Instead, the team simply wants a new person in the position, perhaps because team executives are dissatisfied with the club’s performance. The Giants in this case quickly replaced Colombo with Dave DeGuglielmo. A firing “without cause” usually obligates the team to pay out all or a portion of the remainder of the contract.
A coach who is fired “for cause” could sue the team, arguing that the classification is unjustified and that the team is in breach of contract. Litigation could lead to pretrial discovery, where coaches and players could be called upon to provide sworn testimony not only about “what really happened” but also about the working relationship among Giants coaches, including other arguments. Private emails and texts could also be divulged.
The Giants also have to be mindful of potential defamation claims. If Colombo is described by team employees as violent or dangerous, he could sue the team.
Instead of heading down the path of further conflict with Colombo, the Giants’ human resources and general counsel’s office may be more inclined to negotiate a termination agreement with the 42-year-old retired NFL tackle. A settlement could not only contractually extinguish any legal claims that either may have, but it could also contain a non-disclosure clause. Such a clause would ensure that everyone remains quiet about an incident that could reflect poorly on both Judge and Colombo.
The Giants are 3-7 in Judge’s first season as an NFL head coach. Another Giants staff member, outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema, is currently involved in a contentious litigation with the Razorback Foundation. Judge, Bielema and DeGuglielmo previously coached with the New England Patriots.