Ex-Cards exec accuses owner Bidwill of cheating
2:50 PM ET
Adam SchefterESPN Senior Writer
- ESPN NFL Insider
- Joined ESPN in 2009
- Former president of the Pro Football Writers of America and the author of four books
Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill is accused of gross misconduct, including cheating, discrimination and harassment, in an arbitration claim filed Tuesday by former Cardinals executive Terry McDonough to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
McDonough maintained that both he and former Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks were left with no choice but to follow Bidwill’s plan to use burner phones to communicate with former Arizona general manager Steve Keim while Keim was serving a five-week suspension after pleading guilty to extreme DUI in Arizona.
McDonough said he still has the phone, which he said contains the evidence of the cheating scandal, as well as additional documentation.
In a detailed response sent to ESPN, the Cardinals strongly denied the allegations, calling them “outlandish.”
“We are reluctantly obliged to provide a public response along with broader context for some disappointing and irresponsible actions by Terry McDonough,” external public relations adviser to the Cardinals Jim McCarthy said in a statement. “Claims he has made in an arbitration filing are wildly false, reckless, and an opportunistic ploy for financial gain.
“Our position was consistent with many efforts we’ve made to accommodate Terry during his time with the team, despite difficulties in his personal life and his often volatile demeanor toward colleagues,” the statement from McCarthy said. “That’s why we are saddened to see that Terry is now lashing out at our organization with disparagements and threats that are absurdly at odds with the facts. This unnecessary and vindictive action by Terry was intended to malign his co-workers, our owner Michael Bidwill, and our team with outlandish accusations.”
“In response to McDonough’s objection to the illicit burner phone scheme, Bidwill cursed at, berated, and formally reprimanded McDonough, and ultimately demoted him — irrevocably damaging the trajectory of McDonough’s 34-year career in the National Football League.”
Terry McDonough’s arbitration claim
In the filing, McDonough said he and Wilks “objected to and sought to avoid participation in a scheme hatched by Bidwill to utilize burner phones to communicate with general manager Steve Keim — in violation of the terms of Keim’s suspension for extreme DUI — during a critical period of the Cardinals training camp in the summer of 2018.
“In response to McDonough’s objection to the illicit burner phone scheme, Bidwill cursed at, berated, and formally reprimanded McDonough, and ultimately demoted him — irrevocably damaging the trajectory of McDonough’s 34-year career in the National Football League. Bidwill also subjected McDonough to bullying, mocking, harassing and abusive behavior.”
The filing said that the day after McDonough told Bidwill neither he nor Wilks wanted to communicate with Keim during the suspension, Bidwill summoned him to his office and wrote him up for “insubordination.” McDonough also accused Bidwill of sabotaging Wilks’ first opportunity as an NFL head coach before he fired him at the end of his one season on the job. McDonough said Bidwill has continued to “demote and harass” him since summer 2018.
The Cardinals told ESPN that another executive “had interfered with the protocol of that suspension” and that the team had taken “additional measures.” It also said that Bidwill took “swift action” and directed that phones be retrieved and “communications stopped.”
McDonough is a son of legendary Boston Globe reporter Will McDonough and brother of ESPN broadcaster Sean McDonough. He was the Cardinals’ vice president of player personnel from 2014 to 2019. In 2017, he was a finalist for the San Francisco 49ers‘ general manager position, along with John Lynch and George Paton, the current general managers of the 49ers and Denver Broncos.
In the claim, McDonough said that opportunities for advancement in the NFL evaporated after his refusal to go along with Bidwill. McDonough is seeking damages for breach of contract and emotional distress.
The Cardinals have 20 days to respond to McDonough’s claims under the NFL’s dispute resolution procedural guidelines. Then Goodell “shall determine whether the dispute is football-oriented … or not football-oriented” and whether the dispute is subject to arbitration.
If it is, “the Commissioner will conduct the arbitration in a manner designed to reach a fair and prompt outcome, consistent with the circumstances of the particular dispute.”
The NFL said Tuesday, “We can confirm receipt of the claim which will be handled under the league’s arbitration procedures.” Wilks declined to comment.
“We are saddened to see that Terry is now lashing out at our organization with disparagements and threats that are absurdly at odds with the facts. This unnecessary and vindictive action by Terry was intended to malign his co-workers, our owner Michael Bidwill, and our team with outlandish accusations.”
Jim McCarthy, external public relations adviser to the Cardinals
The Cardinals denied blocking McDonough’s professional career, citing “praise to Mr. Bidwill, in particular for the extensive support and encouragement that Terry had received,” and said that the team brass had “repeatedly encouraged and facilitated Terry’s wish to continue his career advancement.”
McDonough said that he wants to prevent Bidwill from treating people the way he said he was treated and that he believes he is giving voice to a group of Cardinals employees too scared to speak out against Bidwill. He called his treatment “consistent with a pattern of workplace misconduct by Bidwill that is endemic and the hallmark of his stewardship of the storied Cardinals franchise.”
McDonough said in his filing that Bidwill had treated a Black employee and two pregnant women poorly and “created an environment of fear for minority employees.” The filing did not include specifics on either alleged incident.
The Cardinals, citing a time when McDonough and Bidwill had met with free agent players, said Bidwill had no racial animus and called McDonough’s claim “a transparent smear that is truly beneath contempt.”
“It must be stressed that our owner’s long track record of fostering diversity and racial equity within our team and the League make this allegation especially despicable,” the Cardinals said in their statement.
The grievance also said Bidwill reduced two pregnant women — one five months pregnant, the other seven months — to tears after screaming at them with “abusive and bullying mistreatment.”
McDonough said he has proof that in 2019, the Cardinals’ top brass decided to conduct an employee engagement survey with all their employees, only to see Bidwill intercept the results of the survey and cancel it.
“Many of the employees who responded to the survey indicated that they were fearful of Bidwill on a daily basis, as a result of Bidwill’s erratic and often abusive interactions with them,” the filing said.
The Cardinals responded by saying that “the 2019 employee survey referenced in the complaint was not ignored but in fact formed the basis for significant enhancements to our workplace practices. That included creating a new role for a Chief People Officer along with boosting our Human Resources staff and adding robust employee wellness initiatives.”
The grievance that McDonough submitted to Bidwill’s attorney last week and Goodell on Tuesday alleged that “Bidwill’s widespread workplace misconduct is significantly worse than the misbehavior of former crosstown Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver,” whom the NBA suspended one year and fined $10 million before he ultimately sold the franchise.
Bidwill fired Wilks after the 2018 season, when the team finished 3-13. At the news conference to announce the firing of Wilks, Bidwill said, “I didn’t get it right” while Keim said, “We’re all held accountable.”
The grievance said: “The passage of time and exposure of the facts have revealed those comments to be almost perverse in their inaccuracy, misguidedness, and gaslighting nature. Steve Wilks has demonstrated that he is a skilled NFL head coach when he is not forced to cheat and is given an opportunity to succeed. And contrary to Keim’s statement, neither he nor Bidwill have ever been held to account for their illicit actions during the 2018 preseason.”
The grievance said that Wilks recently joined the racial discrimination class action lawsuit brought by former head coach Brian Flores against the NFL and its teams, with Wilks alleging that he was hired by Bidwill only to serve as a “bridge coach” without being given the opportunity to succeed and that he was “the fall guy for failures that were largely attributable to Keim.”
The Cardinals outlined a number of incidents they say were in “violation of our guidelines and the mutual trust in our workplace.” They say McDonough was insubordinate and had clashes with colleagues.
“If an arbitration process results, we will welcome the opportunity to set the record straight in that forum and demonstrate how these claims have absolutely no validity or hard basis.”
“Unfortunately, it appears that the Cardinals will defend this case through dishonest character assassination,” McDonough attorney Mike Caspino said in response to the Cardinals. “I look forward to arbitrating this case, and for the truth to come out.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.