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Lane Kiffin can’t catch a break. Not that he deserves one. On Monday, the Tennessee Titans joined in on the Lane Kiffin bashing with the rest of the state of Tennessee by filing suit against Kiffin and the University of Southern California. This came just days after Titans head coach, Jeff Fisher, publicly criticized Kiffin for hiring away Titans’ running backs coach, Kennedy Pola, to be the Trojans new offensive coordinator.
The Titans are suing Kiffin and USC for “inducement of breach of contract,” a statutory claim in Tennessee, and common law “tortious interference with contract.” The legal argument is quite simple: under section 11(c) of Pola’s contract with the Titans, he agreed not to “entertain employment with any other person or entity” without written permission from the Titans or the Commissioner of the NFL. Pola didn’t get permission from anyone before discussing and accepting the USC job, in clear violation of the contract. But what’s interesting is that the Titans aren’t suing Kennedy Pola for breach of contract; they ignored the obvious claim against the obvious defendant and went after Kiffin and USC instead.
The Titans likely have multiple justifications for this strategy. First and foremost, they probably don’t hold it against Pola for taking advantage of the opportunity (though may have appreciated a heads up). This is what assistant coaches do — it’s all about upward mobility and eventually landing a head coaching job. No, the Titans’ beef is with Kiffin (and by extension, USC, which also happens to be Fisher’s alma mater). No doubt Fisher has been watching the Lane Kiffin saga with great interest, and, as a loyal, no-nonsense head coach who stays out of the limelight, decided to take a stand when Kiffin started messing with his staff. And he’s largely being applauded for it, not only in Tennessee but across the NFL and the sports media.
And that was the purpose, to take a stand and potentially set a precedent for future teams and coaches. From a financial standpoint, Pola leaving probably won’t cost the Titans much. Even with the potential for treble damages, they will have a hard time showing and recovering significant damages, should they win on the merits. But their argument on the merits is pretty strong, especially considering a recent ruling in a lawsuit filed by Marist College against James Madison University after former Marist coach, Matt Brady, bolted for JMU. I know, I know, who against who? The Marist v. JMU suit probably would not have garnered much attention on its own. But with a high profile dust-up like this one involving an NFL team and a major college coach and program coming on its heels, the Marist case has all of a sudden become relevant.
Matt Brady was the head basketball coach at Marist until March 2008, when he was hired away by JMU. Apparently, Brady’s contract with Marist was similar to Pola’s with the Titans — it prohibited Brady from negotiating for employment with other teams without written consent from Marist. Marist filed suit against JMU, also alleging inducement of breach of contract, and on June 30, the New York State Supreme Court issued a default judgment in favor of Marist, finding that Marist had “adequately articulated the elements for a claim of [wrongful] interference with a contract.”
Of course, the Titans lawsuit is pending in Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tennessee, so the New York ruling is not binding precedent. But inducement of breach of contract is not a unique claim across the states, and given that the facts in the two cases are so similar, the Chancery Court may well give weight to the Marist case. If the court sides with the Titans, it could have a cascading effect across the professional sports industry. Poaching coaches is standard practice in college and professional sports, as are contracts like those entered into by Matt Brady and Kennedy Pola. Yet lawsuits like these are rare. That could soon change, thanks to the Tennessee Titans and Jeff Fisher.
– Mark Donnell
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