Dueling federal lawsuits brought by Bret Bielema and the Razorback Foundation in an Arkansas federal court involve a well-known third party: the New England Patriots. Much of the litigation turns on Bielema’s experiences as a draft consultant, special assistant and assistant coach to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in 2018 and 2019.
On Tuesday attorneys for the Patriots requested from Judge P.K. Holmes III that he ensure sealed evidence concerning team trade secrets, including playbooks, scouting impressions and coaches’ salaries, remain sealed—and thereby outside the reach of other Patriots coaches (and their agents), rival teams and inquisitive media. The request relates to the Foundation’s motion to file an amended counterclaim and the Patriots’ concerns about information disclosure.
As detailed more fully in previous Sportico stories, the lawsuit centers on whether the Foundation owes the former Razorbacks head coach about $7 million from a buyout agreement. The buyout required Bielema to try to land another job and be paid a market-based salary, the amount for which would offset the Foundation’s obligation. The buyout also contained an excluded income provision (more colloquially known as a carve out): Bielema could earn up to a range of $100,000 to $150,000 annually without that amount reducing the Foundation’s obligation. Bielema, now the head coach of Illinois, maintains the Foundation is in breach. The Foundation, meanwhile, asserts its obligations to pay Bielema ended as a result of fraud. The nonprofit charges that Bielema unlawfully conspired with the Patriots, through Belichick and their mutual agent, Neil Cornrich, to underpay Bielema, knowing that the Foundation would have to pay the difference.
In December, the Patriots complied with a subpoena by providing the Foundation with hundreds of pages of documents. Several of those pages, the Foundation claims, support their theory of a Bielema-Belichick-Cornrich conspiracy. Attorneys for Bielema and the Patriots, which Sportico values at $4.97 billion, flatly dispute the Foundation’s claim.
As their new filing indicates, the Patriots are worried that the “spat” between two outside parties will generate “gratuitous disclosures” of sensitive information.
The Patriots have reason to worry. Through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service, federal court filings are usually made available to the public for a fee. The Patriots identify a number of materials whose disclosure could cause the team commercial and competitive harm as well as betray confidences. They include:
- Trade secrets, including playbooks, game tape and recruiting data
- Confidential research (including on players—Bielema aided Belichick on 2018 NFL draft preparation)
- Financial materials
- Tax records
- Personnel files
- Independent contractor arrangements
- Information or communications “concerning the status of intimate family relationships with spouses, partners, children, or extended family”
The Patriots’ filing draws particular attention to four documents the Foundation has filed under seal. The four are described as confidential emails exchanged between Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Belichick. They concern Bielema, too.
“These emails,” the Patriots brief asserts, “contain competitively sensitive information. They reveal Patriots’ decision-making process, at different points in time, for how much to compensate one of the team’s coaches (Mr. Bielema), based on his experience and prospects and what other coaches were being paid; how to structure his contract with the Patriots; and how best to utilize him as part of the coaching staff. They also reveal information concerning individuals other than Mr. Bielema, including, in one instance, compensation information, that is completely unrelated to the dispute between Mr. Bielema and the Foundation.”
The Patriots voice fear that if Bielema’s contract terms became known, they could “be used as a benchmark both for the coaches currently fulfilling the roles formerly performed by Mr. Bielema and for the Patriots’ other coaches.” To that point, those coaches and their agents “could leverage this information in future negotiations” with Belichick and Kraft.
Likewise, the team is concerned that the Patriots’ “competitors could take advantage of the sealed information to lure current or prospective coaches away from the Patriots by . . . . offer[ing] a level compensation or other terms of employment that, absent such information, they otherwise might not provide.”
The trial date for Bielema v. Razorback Foundation is a long way off, scheduled for Jan. 10, 2022. There is a chance the case will settle before then, thereby eliminating the possibility of Belichick and Kraft being compelled to testify in court. But in the meantime, sensitive materials could become available on PACER—unless they remain sealed.