You'd be hard-pressed to find a Philadelphia Union fan who wasn't happy when the first manager of the club, Peter Nowak, was fired in June. Through a series of unpopular trades of popular players who let their frustrations be known on their way out the door alongside a precipitous drop in the club's play, fans booed Nowak when introduced at home games in just the team's third season of existence. Coupled with last-place results on the field and rumors Nowak was shopping himself to a Scottish club, and others of dissent in the locker room, Nowak's firing seemed appropriate and welcome to many of us.
But when lengthy employment contracts are signed by both parties, there's more to "cause" than meets the eye, and it appears a judge will need to decide whether the Union terminated and compensated Nowak according to the points spelled out in his contract. According to documents obtained and shared in summary by Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com's The Goalkeeper blog, Nowak is suing the Union's ownership group over the nature of his termination and matters regarding unpaid severance money.
While heavy in legalese, it's an interesting read for Union fans, law hawks, and those who enjoy a good airing of other people's business.
Detailed in the report are the specifics of Nowak's contract, from annual salaries to flight and hotel accommodations and car allowances, the Union's detailed reasons for firing Nowak, as well as the apparent disagreements over the severance arrangement.
After the Nowak firing, the Union moved on quickly and effectively, with former Nowak assistant John Hackworth taking on the interim job, stabilizing a listing ship and immediately getting better results on the field and in public perception. Quickly regaining the confidence of a savvy and vocal fanbase is not something to be underestimated in a league like the MLS, if anywhere. But the Union have a different kind of fight on their hands now, one in which the adage of winning games solving all problems doesn't apply.
We won't attempt to provide legal detail or promote uninformed discussion (any lawyerly readers can feel free to chime in of course), but in our limited understanding, the case is not as simple as it might seem on the surface to us fans (ie, a coach losing control of his team, possibly violating its rules or at least falling short of its expectations, being viewed as a dictator with decreasing efficacy, and being fired). We're used to seeing coaches sacked for less, and we're not accustomed to these firings resulting in lawsuits. But that doesn't get into the legal definitions of "with cause," nor the specific agreements that were in place between manager and club regarding the use of that term and its implications on severance.
I'm told that Nowak's representation, Cliff Haines, is a tough and effective litigator, to say the least. Hopefully a quick settlement of some kind can be arranged, but the sides may be in for a public and nasty battle.
The timing of the suit's filing is also unfortunate given the MLS All-Star festivities and a very busy week at the stadium complex. In addition to All-Star week being held at PPL Park, the announcement of the suit comes in the wake of the city of Chester claiming that the Union are not current in their annual $500,000 payments in lieu of property taxes for stadium, discussed last week in the Daily News. It should be noted that both the team and the city have indicated they are working together to resolve the issue, which also involves proposed new taxes on the team.
Just three years into existence, the Union are facing a possible two-front battle involving their home city and their first manager. Not to mention a steep climb in the standings… At least in the possible battle with Nowak, they'll likely have public opinion on their side.
Visit The Goalkeeper for the full report and links to the legal documentation.