Is (Allegedly) Locking a 21-Year-Old in a Closet a Fireable Offense?

College football fans know that when you turn on a Texas Tech game, you can expect to see some fireworks. Under former head coach Mike Leach, the Red Raiders became an offensive juggernaut — nobody would bat an eye at a 60-point outburst or 400-plus passing yards in any given week (nor at the Red Raiders allowing 63 points and 600 yards of total offense). As it turns out, Saturdays under Coach Leach may have been a bit more fun for Tech players than midweek practice. Leach was fired last December amid allegations that he forced a player who was recovering from a concussion stand for hours in a dark, locked closet.

So now you are probably thinking to yourself, is locking a player in a dark closet really that bad? Maybe that’s how you discipline your 9-year-old. Maybe that’s how a law firm partner punishes an unruly associate. Former Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight would have probably locked the kid in his trunk and driven him home (taking the scenic route). Coach Leach apparently felt the same way, as he filed a lawsuit against Tech soon after he was fired.

Leach apparently had reason to believe that the closet incident wasn’t the true reason that he was fired. The athlete involved, Adam James, is the son of ESPN analyst and former NFL player Craig James. Mr. James was allegedly quite vocal about Tech’s treatment of his son even prior to the closet incident — you know, the college football version of the crazed little league dad (and perhaps the first of his kind to actually want his son to come out of the closet). Tech could have been bowing to that pressure. Leach’s firing also could have been retaliation for his filing a lawsuit against Tech prior to his firing, which he filed following his initial suspension for this incident. There was also bad blood between Leach and Tech brass following heated contract negotiations a year prior (Leach ultimately signed a 5-year, $12M contract). And most coincidentally, Leach was due to receive an $800,000 bonus the day after he was fired (“Oh, you were, Coach Leach? Gosh, I had no idea…”).

Leach’s ensuing lawsuit included a number of claims, all but one of which were dismissed by the trial court judge. The surviving claim is one for breach of contract, which leads to an interesting question — how does one determine whether locking a student in a dark closet is a fireable offense?

In this instance, Tech is relying upon a general moral behavior clause — not exactly the most rock solid ground to stand on. These ultra-generalized provisions (which are also common in the entertainment industry, under the heading of “morals clauses”) have traditionally been the norm in college coaching contracts, but this incident is evidence that such provisions should be much more particularized. More and more college coaches are filing lawsuits these days, especially since Ohio State basketball coach Jim O’Brien obtained a $2.2M recovery (plus interest) from the university in 2006 (despite admitting to loaning $6,000 to a Serbian recruit). And while coaches have typically feared the stigma associated with suing a former employer, the stigma has begun to fade as such lawsuits become increasingly common. Universities will have to take note, and more specific termination clauses will be part of the solution.

It will obviously be difficult to anticipate every morally questionable situation that may arise during a coach’s tenure, but many of the common problems — physically striking a player, sex with a co-ed, streaking through campus following a big win (I know, it takes all the fun out of being a college coach…actually, maybe they can write in a bonus for that last one) — can be negotiated and written into the contract at the outset of a coach’s tenure. Lawsuits like Leach’s are a public relations mess for universities, and there is too much money on the line to simply rely on a judge or jury’s notion of morality. Unless Leach’s breach of contract claim is also thrown out on appeal (oral arguments in the appellate court ended earlier this month), Texas Tech will learn this lesson first hand.

All of this, of course has important implications for other aspects of the sports and entertainment industries. In lieu of more general “morals” or “conduct” clauses, Mel Gibson’s employers may seek a “raving anti-Semitic remarks” clause; Charlie Sheen’s bosses might want to write a “no naked, drunken hotel room destructions” provision into his next $2-million-per-episode TV deal; and of course, any future employers of Leach — despite the lawsuit, he is still an accomplished football coach — will probably want to expressly include “locking a player in the broom closet” as a terminable offense.

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