Generally, the firing of a professional sports team’s general manager is not going to raise my interest as an employment lawyer, but the comments made by the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks after Dale Tallon was fired certainly piqued my interest. Those hockey fans in the audience may know that Tallon’s firing came shortly after the NHLPA filed a grievance claiming that he failed to send out timely qualifying offers to players that were restricted free agents. Rather than risking those players becoming unrestricted free agents, Tallon quickly signed them to long term contracts that probably aggravates the team’s salary cap issues in the near term and ultimately may cost the team more money.
In an effort likely designed to deflect attention from this blunder, Rocky Wirtz, the Blackhawks owner, is quoted by MSNBC.com as follows regarding Tallon’s replacement: Asked what Bowman, who’s in his ninth year with the Blackhawks, brings to the job that Tallon didn’t, Wirtz said: "He’s 36, Dale is 58. We always want younger people. What he brings is a system in place to get better," Uh oh.
Fortunately for the Blackhawks as it relates to Tallon’s situation, the recent Supreme Court decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services probably saves them from a potential claim of age discrimination. As reported previously, Gross holds that a plaintiff bringing an ADEA disparate-treatment claim must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that age was the “but-for” cause of the challenged adverse employment action. Here, John McDonough, the Blackhawks president who appears to have been the driving force behind the termination, acknowledged that Tallon probably would not have been fired if not for the free agent incident. For future reference, however, the Blackhawks may want to keep tabs on Congress, which already has announced that it will hold hearings directed at overturning the Gross decision.