In 2012, the Philadelphia Union fired then-coach Peter Nowak. The ongoing legal battle over that firing has made public the disturbing allegations that got Nowak canned. They include Nowak spanking rookie players, sometimes with a sandal, to the point where it hurt his own hand; belittling concussions; throwing water bottles meant for players into the woods so they would have to run for miles without hydration; and trying to stop players from reporting all of this to their union.
Nowak sued the team for wrongful termination and an arbitrator sided with the team, but Nowak appealed that decision. As part of that legal wrangling, the case was assigned to a new judge who, Philly.com reports, made the records public with only player names and private correspondence between players and their union redacted.
Here are the details of all the allegations, as laid out in arbitrator Margaret R. Brogan’s decision from April 21 of last year in favor the of Novak’s firing. All quotes, unless indicated otherwise, are from that document.
Spanking of rookie players
The spankings started in 2010’s preseason training camp. Here is how the spankings are described and what Nowak, who also is referred to as claimant, admitted to doing. Emphasis added is mine.
Mr. Nowak initiated the practice, and engaged in the spanking of each rookie player, encouraging the rest of the veteran team members to participate. Mr. Nowak had brought the practice to the Philadelphia Union, as he had previously engaged in this when Coach of DC United. In the hazing ritual, Mr. Nowak had a bucket of ice water nearby, in which he would put his hand prior to spanking the rookies. Sometimes, he used a sandal to paddle the rookies.
Claimant admits engaging in this practice, as described above. He testified that he had the approval of the players. Mr. Nowak testified that it was a good tradition and good for their identity as a team. Mr. Nowak testified that he used the ice water to cool down his own hand, given the number of players that he was paddling.
Arbitrator Margaret R. Brogan, later in decision, would call this “completely unacceptable.” Former team CEO Nick Sakiewicz said he knew about the spanking and told Nowak to stop it. Nowak said Sakiewicz never told him that and enjoyed watching videos of it. Team sporting director Diego Gutierrez “confirmed Mr. Sakiewicz’ knowledge, and said he saw him laughing when he was shown a video of the physical hazing.”
May 31, 2012 training run
After a game against Toronto, players recalled that Nowak said they “were not going to have a planned four days off, and they should cancel their trips.” Instead, they would go home “shake the trees” and “find out who sticks and who doesn’t.”
Mr. Nowak told them that he personally could not be fired, but he made reference to the fact that he had traded away [redacted] and also the leading scorer, and he made it clear he was not afraid to make moves regarding players.
On May 31, Nowak ordered all the players to run a trail they had never used before, one with “pavement, uneven in places, and wound through hills and under trees.” They all had to run three to four intervals, for about 8 to 12 miles. It was 80 degrees and very humid.
The first issue was that several players had injuries: one to his big toe, another to his right ankle, and a third to one of his ankles. Head trainer Paul Rushing said the hurt players should be excused and work on non-weight bearing bikes instead. Nowak later testified that he refused this advice.
The run began and trainers brought out 24 22-ounce water bottles, but after the players returned from one loop, Nowak refused to let them have water. Here is how Rushing recounted that. Emphasis added is mine:
Mr. Rushing testified that the Claimant angrily took the bottles away, saying, in a harsh manner, that the players could not have water. Mr. Rushing described how he was very concerned about his players, whose safety he his responsibility to ensure. Mr. Rushing and the Claimant continued to argue about it. At one point, the trainers tried to sneak water to the players as they lapped, but Mr. Nowak grabbed the water bottles and threw the bottles into the bushes. Although Mr. Nowak initially denied it, he later admitted that he took bottles out of some players’ hands and dumped them into the bushes.
Players testified about the fighting between Nowak and the staff over the water and said Nowak, as he threw the bottles into the woods, told them “You guys don’t need water.” One player said he heard Nowak say “I’m going to make men out of these guys.”
Nowak admitted to telling Rushing, “No fucking water, put the water back, water will make you lose focus and if you’re thirsty you’re weak,” but said “he was telling a story about another coach in Germany.” In later practices, Nowak would also limit their water.
It was this run that kickstarted the MLS investigation into Nowak.
Interfering with the players’ union
On March 15, 2012, the union’s executive director, Bob Foose, said he held a routine meeting with Philadelphia players. The details of that meeting are redacted, but afterward Foose discussed the issue with team sporting director Diego Gutierrez. After that meeting, Nowak called two players asking who had complained to the Players’ Union. One player said Nowak said, “We can work together, you don’t need to use your Players’ Union for any issues that arise.”
Another player said he got a call two weeks before he was traded asking him if he had gone to the Players’ Union. Nowak even went to Foose, who said that he got a call from Nowak “in which the Claimant said that he did not understand and he did not think it was appropriate that the players should be talking to the Players’ Union.”
Foose said he did not immediately bring this conversation to the league’s attention because “he feared retaliation against his players.”
Nowak denied in his testimony telling his players to not go to their union. Former team CEO Sakiewicz testified that when Nowak found out a grievance had been filed against him he responded by telling him he was upset “and he was determined to find out who all had complained.”
The arbitrator would later write that these were “textbook examples of attempts to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees from engaging in their protected right to consult with their Players’ Union representatives regarding their concerns over terms and conditions of employment without reprisal.”
One person, whose name was redacted, testified that “it was not uncommon for Mr. Nowak to call a player a ‘pussy’ for complaining he had a concussion.” There’s also testimony that Nowak told one person “if you have a concussion, you do not need to really miss much time, you’re weak if you can’t play through a concussion.”
Nowak did not “specifically deny” making those statements. He did say he went to the equipment manager and ordered five protective helmets.
Nowak testified that he did not know MLS’s concussion protocols, although he “denied disobeying any kind of MLS regulation or rule.” Arbitrator Brogan said of his statements, “It is simply unacceptable, given the common knowledge of the dangers of concussions, for a head coach to vilify those who suffered from symptoms.”
Ultimately, Brogan found that Nowak “failed to prove that his firing was in violation of the Employment Act.” Instead, she notes that Nowak violated the terms of his contract with his behavior, and says he was fairly fired. Her full ruling is below.
Image via Associated Press