Alabama Football coach Nick Saban revealed on Wednesday that he has tested positive for COVID-19. Athletic director Greg Byrne also tested positive. But Alabama may be well prepared should the coach face disability claims, according to the coach’s contract.
Saban, 68, assured reporters that he has no symptoms and feels “fine.” He added that he would continue to be tested daily, per conference rules. Saban left the facility as soon as he found out about the test and has been watching practice and speaking with players via video conference. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian—a former head coach at Washington and USC—will fill in.
“I’ll have normal meetings tomorrow, everything will be on Zoom,” Saban said. “I’ll have the same exact routine. First thing I do on Thursday morning is watch the defense practice, then we do two-minute and two-point plays, then I watch what we did against each other with the offense, then I watch the offense practice, then I watch special teams, then I usually do a write-up for two-minute and two-point plays for the team. I’ll do all those things, exactly like I always do it.”
It’s unclear how long Saban, who participated in public service announcements encouraging mask use, will be away. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that an asymptomatic person should isolate for at least 10 days.
Saban’s prognosis appears encouraging. However, those afflicted by COVID-19 can have erratic trajectories. One recent study of patients who were initially asymptomatic found that about one in five experienced symptoms days or weeks later. Saban, who in May participated in a public service announcement encouraging viewers to wear masks and social distance, acknowledges that how he feels today might not be how he feels tomorrow. “I’m not really concerned that much about my health,” Saban told reporters. “But you never know.”
Saban is the highest paid coach in college football. He earned $9.3 million in 2019 and his contract runs until February 2026.
Like those of other coaches, Saban’s contract contains detailed language on termination. One contemplated circumstance is if Saban “becomes sick or injured so he is limited from performing the essential and substantial duties of the position of Head Coach.” In that scenario, Saban “may become entitled to long term disability benefits under [Alabama’s] long term disability program.”
If Saban were approved for this program, his contract would terminate and he would then collect benefits. It’s likely Saban would qualify given that he appears to meet the program’s three eligibility requirements: (1) he’s a full-time employee who (2) actively works at least 38.75 hours a week and (3) is a U.S. citizen.
Under the program, Alabama employees are paid between 60% and 66.7% of qualified earnings. However, the school’s maximum monthly disability benefit is capped at $10,000. This means Saban would be paid at most $120,000 a year rather than more than $9 million. Also, because Saban is 68 years old, his maximum benefit period would only be one year and three months.
Alternatively, if for some reason Saban were denied long term disability, his contract would still be terminated but he would then receive “monthly disability payments in an amount equal to 1/12th of 66 2/3% of his current annual base salary.” This would continue for one year, after which there would be no more payments. His current annual base salary is $275,000, meaning he would be paid roughly $183,000. Most of Saban’s pay is structured as a “personal services fee” or “talent fee” rather than base salary.
In either scenario where Saban is deemed too sick or injured to perform “the essential and substantial duties” of his job, Saban would be paid a mere fraction of his massive contract. Saban—and his attorneys—would thus have incentive to contest a university finding that he couldn’t perform the job. Saban’s contract notes that he cannot seek a court injunction to be reinstated as a coach. But Saban, who might have protections from other insurance policies, could seek a claim for breach of contract or turn to other areas of law unique to COVID-19.
As detailed on Sportico, coaches who contract COVID-19 and who then face adverse employment consequences might turn to the Americans with Disabilities Act for help. The ADA obligates employers to provide reasonable accommodations to ADA-protected employees so they can perform the essential functions of their jobs. Whether persons who suffer long-term health ailments from COVID-19 qualify for ADA protections is the subject of ongoing discussion by employment attorneys and legal scholars. An ADA-protected coach who is unable to direct from the sideline but who nonetheless insists he or she could coach remotely might argue that a reasonable accommodation would be to allow them to coach through Zoom, phones, texts and other electronic means of correspondence.
Saban could also seek protection from the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The ADEA protects employees who are 40 or older from employer discrimination on the basis of age. Saban could assert that concerns about advanced age in relationship to COVID-19, which tends to have worse outcomes for older persons, leads to unnecessary if not unlawful generalizations.
There’s no doubt that Alabama would go out of its way to avoid a public conflict with Saban, one of the most revered persons in school history. He has won five national titles for the Crimson Tide and his record over 14 seasons is a stellar 160-23. In the unlikely event Saban becomes too unwell to coach, the school would likely work out a mutually-agreeable arrangement with him. Still, the contract gives the school leverage.