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CHAUDHRI: Antonio Brown firing raises human rights questions

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Antonio Brown’s contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was terminated after he left the field in an NFL game on Jan. 6.

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Brown threw his gloves and other gear into the crowd, waved to the fans, and left his jersey on the field. He later claimed he left after being forced to play with an ankle injury.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Brown said: “Due to my commitment to the game, I gave in to my coach’s pressure to play injured. Despite the pain, I adapted. The staff injected me what I now know to be a powerful and sometimes dangerous painkiller that the NFLPA has warned against using, and I gave it my all for the team.

The Buccaneers deny Brown’s injury allegations. Bucs coach Bruce Arians told a press conference that Brown stormed off the field because he believed he was not getting the ball. The Buccaneers also claim that Brown was asked to provide updated medical documentation a few weeks ago, but declined to provide it.

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This isn’t the first time the NFL has come under pressure regarding the health of its players.

In a recent New York Times article, the publication claimed that at least 315 former NFL players suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE has been a troubling issue for the NFL for years. In fact, it came to light again last year after NFL player Phillip Adams shot and killed six people and then took his own life in April. It was revealed in December that he was suffering from CTE.

Defenders called on the NFL to do more to protect players from life-changing disabilities.

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There is no doubt that players pushed to play due to injury are a widespread concern for all professional athletes. Like all employees, athletes have the right to be accommodated with respect to current or continuing disabilities.

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While Antonio Brown may have a legitimate claim, his credibility has been questioned. His departure was seen by some as an act of insubordination and one in a long series of similar incidents.

For example, Brown was suspended just weeks ago for providing false documentation about his COVID-19 status. He joined the Bucs in October 2020 after not playing in the NFL for over 13 months. When he joined the team, he was serving another eight-game suspension for violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. In that context, the Bucs are likely confident that terminating Brown’s contract won’t bring much legal liability.

Although Antonio Brown is not a model defenseman, he may have a good record against the Bucs. Employers are required to accommodate disabilities to the point of undue hardship. They have a positive obligation to find out from an employee who works with a disability. The bar is unquestionably high. Both parties have already acknowledged that Brown suffered an ankle injury. Now Brown must prove his injury had something to do with his release.

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As history continues to play out in the courtroom of public opinion, Tampa Bay must ensure that it comes to any legal proceedings with clean hands. If Brown can prove that his contract termination had something to do with his injury, he could very well be victorious.

CHAUDHRI: Antonio Brown firing raises human rights questions
Lawyer Sunira Chaudhri is a partner at Workly Law. Photo by Fourni /labor law

On to this week’s questions:

Q. I have worked for the same company for about two years. I have good relations with my colleagues and especially my boss. Just before the holidays (and after receiving my end-of-year bonus), I received a very severe written warning for poor performance. I was shocked to receive this as I received no notice and in fact my last performance review went well. It turns out that I was fired at the beginning of January, and my termination letter refers to this warning letter just before the holidays. Does my employer have the right to do this?

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A. Whenever an employee receives a warning letter or performance review that they disagree with, it is essential to respond in writing to document your own side of the story. If you have not already done so, you should directly address the warning letter and the inaccuracies it contains. It is important to do your best to be objective. Sometimes employers think they have to discipline employees before firing. This may give rise to bad faith damages or create the basis for a claim for bad faith termination. I suggest that you seek legal advice to discuss the warning letter in the context of your termination before signing any packages presented to you upon your termination.

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Q. My employer has a manufacturing division and I have been very vocal about physical distancing and the use of PPE. Sure, during the workday it can sometimes be difficult to maintain physical distancing and wear a mask all the time, but people are far too casual. I spoke to managers as well as HR when I saw people not distancing, sitting close together and keeping their masks on. For the first time ever, I received a poor review of my performance, including the allegation that I am “prone to distraction”. I think it’s only because I talked about COVID safety in the workplace. Any opinions will be welcome.

A. First of all, it seems that your concerns are legitimate. That said, many employees struggle to wear a mask for eight hours a day, and employers have struggled to enforce many of the workplace guidelines recommended by the CDC and Occupational Health and Safety. Provided your suggestions and attention to safety are reasonable, there should be no reason for you to be penalized or retaliated against. I would advise you to respond to the performance review in writing (similar to my advice above) and state evidence confirming your strong performance, that you have never received a poor performance review before and that you are concerned that this evaluation can be in response to your advocacy on workplace safety. In the event that your performance review results in workplace sanctions or retaliation, you can rely on your performance review response as evidence to assist you.

Do you have a problem at work? Maybe I can help. Email me at sunira@worklylaw.com and your question may be featured in a future article.

The content of this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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