The FOX pregame show used to have a segment dubbed “Fired Up,” in which one of the analysts would deliver a spontaneous, passionate, over-the-top argument about an NFL topic — while reading the words of it from a teleprompter.
Jimmy Johnson of FOX, who previously coached the Cowboys and Dolphins, is genuinely and organically fired up about the firing of Dolphins head trainer Kevin O’Neill. Ultimately, however, his position is flawed.
“[U]nbelievable!” Johnson said of the move. “O’Neill could not give info because of law. The BEST I ever worked with.”
In a separate tweet, Johnson points out that he has been “involved with football for 60 years,” and that “O’Neill was best I was ever around.”
Johnson seems to believe that O’Neill’s failure to report that anything was amiss to coach Joe Philbin flowed from his obligations under the federal HIPAA law.
“Trainers have info from Doctors that is confidential and they can not discuss,” Johnson said.
That’s where we have to disagree with Johnson. The trainers can — and should — alert the head coach regarding anything improper happening in the locker room. Last Friday, Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said he relies on his trainer and equipment manager to be the “pulse guys,” bringing to the coach any issues or problems percolating or boiling over in the locker room.
Telling the boss that an employee is treating other people poorly doesn’t entail in any way the disclosure of confidential medical information. They all work for the same company. They all have a shared duty to ensure that everyone is treated with respect.
If, for example, one employee is treating another employee poorly and the aggressor has some medical reason to justify the behavior, the presence of a possible medical explanation doesn’t allow everyone to stick their heads in the sand and permit the abuse to continue.
Besides, O’Neill wasn’t fired for failing to report the situation to coach Joe Philbin. While as a practical matter a decision by O’Neill to let Philbin know that Richie Incognito and others were treating an assistant trainer and others poorly could have prevented this entire mess from surfacing, the Ted Wells report concluded that O’Neill joined in the laughter resulting from the racial harassment of the assistant trainer, and that O’Neill displayed hostility to the investigation that had been commissioned in the wake of Jonathan Martin leaving the team.
The hostility displayed by O’Neill provides grounds to fire him. While it may have been bad form to let O’Neill travel to Indianapolis before firing him, anyone and everyone knew in November that the Martin/Incognito situation had sparked national headlines beyond the sports world. The NFL appointed Ted Wells to investigate the situation. Wells and his team conducted many, many meetings. And O’Neill displayed hostility to the investigation when meeting with them?
He arguably should have been fired on the spot, no questions asked. While the Dolphins didn’t implement the decision in an ideal way (to say the least), they made the only decision they could — assuming that no other employees who displayed hostility to the investigation have gotten a pass.
That’s the only way the firing of O’Neill could create a potential mess for the Dolphins. If other non-players who were interviewed showed hostility to the investigation and weren’t fired, then the distinguishing factor for firing O’Neill is that he laughed when the assistant trainer was being harassed by the men that the trainers are there to serve. Which could make the decision vulnerable to a legal challenge.
But if at any point a lawyer were to suggest that O’Neill didn’t report the harassment because of HIPAA or any other medical confidentiality law, the lawyer should be laughed out of the courtroom. And in that specific case it would be more than appropriate for O’Neill to join in.