Former Sacramento Kings announcer Grant Napear lost a sports radio job for tweeting “All Lives Matter” last summer. He’s now suing, arguing the firing was illegal under California’s anti-discrimination and labor laws, as well as a violation of public policy.
Napear, 62, is a fixture in the Sacramento sports community. For 32 years, he handled play-by-play for Kings games. A two-time Emmy Award winner and fill-in host for Jim Rome, Napear served as a host on KHTK-AM for more than a quarter of a century. His program, The Grant Napear Show with Doug Christie, consistently excelled in ratings. (Disclosure: I was a guest several times.)
Napear’s fortunes changed on Sunday, May 31, 2020, at around 8:30 p.m. This was six days after the murder of George Floyd, which sparked protests across the country.
Former Kings center DeMarcus Cousins tweeted at Napear, “what’s your take on BLM?”
Cousins, who had numerous disciplinary issues during his Kings career, had a history with Napear. In 2017, Napear criticized Cousins as a “dark cloud over this franchise.” Two years later, he blasted Cousins as, “the rudest, crudest, most vile player that I have ever been around in my 31 years in the NBA.”
Napear replied to Cousins’ tweet. “Hey!!! How are you?” Napear’s tweet began. “Thought you forgot about me. Haven’t heard from you in years. ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE.”
The station’s owner, Bonneville International Corporation, initially suspended Napear, then fired him, with cause. Bonneville issued a statement on June 2, 2020. The company was “saddened by the comments Grant Napear recently made on Twitter,” adding: “The timing of Grant’s tweet was particularly insensitive…. It is crucial that we communicate the tremendous respect that we have for the black community and any other groups or individuals who have cause to feel marginalized.”
Napear hired attorney Matthew Ruggles, an expert in employment law, to take on Bonneville.
According to Napear’s complaint, his employment contract defined cause as “Any act of material dishonesty, misconduct, or other conduct that might discredit the goodwill, good name, or reputation of the Company.” The contract also barred Napear from making offensive remarks and bringing himself or the station into public disrepute.
Napear asked to go on air and posit that “every single one” is inclusive of Black Lives Matter. The station, he says, denied the request. Napear also argues that “all lives matter” is reflective of his religious beliefs as a Unitarian Universalist—the first principle for which holds “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”—and that his tweet was “entirely non-racist, factually true and inherently inoffensive.” He further stresses that Twitter, which prohibits harassing and hateful conduct, took no action. Napear says he was never disciplined during his lengthy employment at the station and followed all the rules.
Napear’s First Amendment rights don’t help his case. The First Amendment generally prevents the government and public entities from punishing the exercise of free speech. Private businesses, in contrast, can discipline employees for speech, so long as such discipline complies with contracts, workplace policies and—of particular relevance to Napear’s lawsuit—other applicable laws.
Napear contends he was terminated because he “is a Caucasian male, who published a phrase on social media” that Bonneville saw as violating an “ad hoc” and “unpublished” policy “supporting Black Lives Matter.” Bonneville’s actions, Napear insists, constituted discrimination and retaliation on account of his race, religion, gender and “protected expression of his personal political opinion.”
Napear’s complaint cites California Labor Code sections 1101 and 1102, which prohibit public and private employers from preventing employees from engaging in politics. They also outlaw employers threatening to fire employees over a particular “line of political action or political activity.” Napear’s tweet, sent while at home and as he watched TV coverage of the protests, arguably constituted political activity.
For recent guidance, consider U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney’s refusal in May to dismiss a 1101 and 1102 claim brought by computer programmer Leah Snyder against her employer, Alight Solutions. Alight fired Snyder after she posted Facebook photos of herself at the Washington, D.C., Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Judge Carney, a star wide receiver at UCLA in the early 1980s before playing professionally in the USFL, noted that Snyder alleges she neither participated in rioting nor entered the Capitol. Snyder, the judge wrote, “has sufficiently pled that her termination was politically motivated.” Snyder v. Alight Solutions remains in litigation.
Napear’s complaint also invokes section 12940 of California’s Government Code. Under it, employers can’t discriminate against employees on the basis of their gender, race, religious creed or other protected demographic categories. Napear says Bonneville was “substantially motivated” by his gender, race and religion.
Napear seeks monetary damages that would include back pay, front pay, lost benefits and money that compensates him for the shame and embarrassment of his firing as well as punitive damages to punish Bonneville.
In the coming weeks, Bonneville will answer Napear’s complaint and deny his allegations. Expect Bonneville to maintain Napear’s Twitter account, while not under Bonneville’s control, was closely related to his employment. Napear’s tweets might have reflected on Bonneville.
Bonneville will likely opine that Napear’s tweet brought himself into public disrepute and discredited the company’s reputation. Although “all lives matter” is definitionally inclusive of all races, some contend it inconsiderately downplays or obscures the pervasive and pernicious forms of racism that black people have experienced. Napear clearly disagrees with that characterization as it relates to him, especially given his faith. Napear’s complaint also stresses that California law makes it difficult for employers to fire employees over political speech.
Kimberly Mueller, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for California’s Eastern District, is presiding over the case. Meanwhile, although Napear is off the radio airwaves, he now hosts a podcast, If You Don’t Like That.