In an amended complaint filed in a California federal court last Thursday, former Sacramento Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear argues that he was illegally fired and discriminated against for tweeting “All Lives Matter” six days after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Napear, a two-time Emmy Award winner who hosted the popular “Grant Napear Show with Doug Christie” on KHTK-AM, originally sued KHTK owner Bonneville International Corporation in 2021. Judge Dale Drozd dismissed the case last month, reasoning Napear’s complaint insufficiently alleged wrongdoing. The judge gave Napear a chance to file an amended complaint to address the deficiencies.
The case centers on a Twitter exchange between Napear and former Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who asked Napear about his “take” on Black Lives Matter. Napear replied, in part, that “ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE.” The Twitter exchange, as one might imagine, elicited varying reactions.
Bonneville fired Napear with cause, contending his tweet “was particularly insensitive” and at odds with a need to “communicate the tremendous respect that we have for the black community and any other groups or individuals who have cause to feel marginalized.”
Napear’s First Amendment right to free speech is not at issue. The amendment guarantees Americans freedom from government interference; Bonneville is a private corporation.
Napear’s employment contract defined “cause” to include conduct that “might discredit the goodwill, good name, or reputation of the Company” and accorded Bonneville with “reasonable discretion” to interpret and apply that language. In court documents, Bonneville maintains a “barrage of negative responses and reactions on Twitter from fans and players” supplied sufficient grounds to find cause.
Napear, who also worked for ESPN, disagrees. He asserts his reference to “every single” life necessarily encompasses Black (and all other) lives and constituted both an “expression of his sincerely held Christian religious belief” and a political message “that all persons are created and remain equal under the law regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, political affiliation, or any other basis.” Napear says he was denied a chance to explain.
Napear stresses he’s been a member of the Unitarian Church “his entire life” and, as a “devout member,” he follows the church’s seven principles. They include “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and justice and equity. Napear adds he discussed with co-workers, including co-hosts, “his religion and his faith in God,” and that he attended church on Sundays. KHTK and Bonneville therefore “knew,” Napear maintains, that he was “a religious person” and adhered to religious principles.
The amended complaint also insists “all lives matter” is not offensive, in part because it has been at times co-opted by the BLM movement. Napear references Floyd’s brother, Philonise, telling a crowd after Derek Chauvin’s conviction that “I just want to reiterate: not just black lives matter, all lives matter.” He also quotes the father of Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered in a hate crime, saying “for real, all lives matter” and LeBron James remarking “all lives do matter” after the shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott.
Napear further asserts that Bonneville’s explanation for his firing relies on fabrication. After he sued Bonneville in 2021, the company—he claims—told him he was fired in part because during a team meeting Kings players and executives allegedly voted to cut ties with him, and Bonneville relied on that vote to find cause. Napear disputes that any meeting or vote occurred.
Represented by employment attorney Matthew Ruggles, Napear seeks a jury trial and a judgment representing lost past and future wages and other injuries. The complaint emphasizes that California law generally forbids employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religious belief, expression of religious belief or for espousing a political position.
As it has throughout the litigation, Bonneville will respond to Napear’s allegations and attempt to rebut them. Bonneville has disputed Napear’s recitation of facts and insists he cannot prove the company was motivated by a discriminatory purpose because it had none.
In a motion to dismiss filed on Dec. 23, 2021, Bonneville underscored that “many of the responses and retweets” to Napear’s tweet said he “had embarrassed the Sacramento Kings and called on the organization to terminate him.” Bonneville also repeatedly emphasized that, per the contract, it only needed to conclude that Napear’s conduct “might discredit” the company’s goodwill and name. Bonneville contends it lawfully relied on the reaction to terminate Napear.
As often occurs in employment litigation, Napear’s case could end at any time with a settlement. If not, Napear v. Bonneville could set important precedent for how companies regulate the social media activity of their talent.