It’s been nearly a year since XFL 2.0 suspended operations, laid off staff and declared bankruptcy as the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports. Yet the combative relationship between former XFL commissioner Oliver Luck and the executive who fired him, WWE founder and Alpha Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon, lives on in a Connecticut federal courthouse.
On Friday, attorneys for McMahon filed a 47-page document that portrayed Luck as attempting to mislead U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden on key aspects of Luck’s $23.8 million lawsuit.
The gravamen of the case is about whether McMahon illegally fired Luck for cause—a move that extinguished Alpha’s obligation to pay the remainder of Luck’s five-year, $35 million employment contract—and whether McMahon’s personal guarantee that Alpha would pay Luck is enforceable.
Alpha insists that Luck violated his contract in several ways, including in the January 2020 signing of former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Antonio Callaway. Callaway suffered a severe knee injury shortly after the signing, and the XFL was obligated to pay for his treatment.
XFL policy, Friday’s filing stressed, “prohibited hiring any players with bad reputations due to questionable or problematic backgrounds without McMahon’s approval.” The phrases “bad reputations” and “problematic backgrounds” were clearly subjective and could have sparked interpretative disagreements among reasonable minds. Alpha maintains that type of analysis misses the salient point. It argues McMahon—not Luck, not any group of people—was the decider of sufficient character.
Callaway, who would have been a relatively elite talent for the startup football league, had a troubled history. As a student at Florida, he was accused of sexual assault but was later cleared of that allegation in a Title IX hearing. Callaway had also been accused of credit card fraud and other misconduct. As Alpha puts it, Luck knew Callaway would have been an ineligible player and yet signed him anyway.
To bolster that assertion, the brief cites preceding examples of McMahon (allegedly) telling Luck not to sign a specific player on account of his “bad reputation”—including another former Browns player, Johnny Manziel. According to the brief, “McMahon instructed Luck in writing [in spring of 2019] that Manziel could not play for the XFL,” due to Manziel facing domestic violence charges and other allegations.
McMahon, the brief maintains, also forbid Luck from signing former Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant had encountered several controversies in his NFL career, including multiple suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The brief also refers to an unnamed player whom McMahon allegedly ordered Luck to not sign on account of a sexual assault accusation. This player would have been signed a handful of days before Luck signed Callaway.
As portrayed by the brief, Luck “deceived McMahon,” first by omitting reference to Callaway in their conversation about free agent wide receivers who could have provided legitimate talent and second by not informing McMahon of Callaway’s “history of drug problems, sexual assault allegations, or other legal problems.” The brief also refers to passages of a sealed filing by Luck, wherein Luck is portrayed as inaccurately asserting “Callaway was not disqualified under the XFL’s policy by relying on a July 17, 2019 email in which Luck claimed to other employees that McMahon was ‘on board’ with [criteria] for disqualifying players,” and wrongly surmising from internal XFL emails that McMahon had agreed with Luck’s interpretation.
The brief argues that under no interpretation of the XFL’s eligibility policy would Callaway have been signable. This is in part, McMahon’s attorneys maintain, because Callaway and several of his college teammates were accused of a felony, credit card fraud. In addition, McMahon supplied submitted a sworn declaration where, under penalty of criminal perjury, he expressed that he never approved of criteria that could have permitted Callaway.
Much of the brief also attempts to persuade Judge Bolden to deny Luck’s attorneys access to over 250 pages of privileged documents. These documents include emails sent among a group of now former XFL officials, including the head of talent acquisition and vice president of business and legal affairs officials. These emails concern Callaway. Luck’s attorneys clearly suspect the emails could bolster their argument that McMahon and other XFL officials were on board with the signing of Callaway—which, if true, would greatly enhance Luck’s case. Alpha contends they should not be accessible on account of attorney-client privilege.