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When Employees Are Fired, Are Explanations Really Required When The Firing Company Is A Sports Team?

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Let’s take a step back and look at the broader aspects of the news release around Jim Montgomery’s firing.

New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s been 24 hours since the news broke of the Dallas Stars firing their head coach, Jim Montgomery. Now that Rick Bowness has assumed the position of interim head coach and the Stars have a 2-0 shutout win over the New Jersey Devils under their belts, let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

In retrospect, the Stars front office, and especially general manager Jim Nill, handled the release of information and the resulting press conference in the right way from a legal perspective — even if that doesn’t satiate the thirst for the real story expressed by fans, season ticket holders, and media alike.

It’s important to remember that while sports teams take on a broader entertainment persona, they are, at heart, companies. They have policies, procedures, and rules that are to be followed by all employees in order to protect the company from any potential liability, criminality, or reputation tarnishment.

By state and federal laws pertaining to human resources, an employer can be sued for defamation if any information is released pertaining to the firing of an employee and that employee is unable to secure a new position elsewhere based on that information. In this situation, the former employer is open to a lawsuit for losses and damages suffered.

The Stars, like the local real estate firm or a national cell phone retailer or any other kind of business, are held to the same state and federal human resource laws as everyone else. And Jim Montgomery was fired, just like any other fired employee from any other kind of company. As such, the Stars could only say that he had been let go, no criminal investigation was forthcoming, the firing was not performance based, and that’s all she wrote. So while fans may be upset that Nill wasn’t more forthcoming on the details around why Montgomery was let go, he really did provide all that he could within those legal boundaries.

Perhaps why the lack of explanation for the firing (beyond “unprofessional conduct”) is so startling is due to the fact that almost all recent NHL head coach firings have been based on performance. In those cases, the coach was relieved of his duties, the team’s front office held a press conference, reporters were given the reason that the team’s performance was poor and a hope expressed that removing the coach would result in a change.

Firing due to team performance is a technical grey area within the realm of HR. While it is providing the cause of firing, the reason often does not deter the fired coach from finding a new position after his removal (as evidenced by the “retread” coaching carousel in the NHL). In instances where a coach has been relieved of his duties, it’s only been after his removal that any allegations of personal or professional misconduct have come out. See Mike Babcock being removed from his position with the Toronto Maple Leafs for poor team performance as an example of allegations and stories surfacing of misconduct after his removal.

In recent memory, Jim Montgomery’s case is the first time a head coach has been removed due to misconduct. It’s the incredibly rare instance that makes Montgomery’s firing and lack of explanation why so startling. (Something to note: Bill Peters wasn’t fired due to professional misconduct. He was put on leave while under investigation and then resigned.)

The instances of firing due to criminal investigation or the team’s performance are issues that will become public (or, in the case of team performance, are already readily apparent to anyone paying attention) and, as such, are often released at the time of firing in order to allow the team to control the messaging of the move.

However, other reasons, such as HR issues (as this may be the case), don’t demand an answer be given to the fanbase — especially if there are other parties involved in what happened outside of Montgomery. (Nill confirmed that it did not have anything to do with past or present players or any employee of the Dallas Stars organization in his press conference yesterday, but that does not rule out an unaffiliated individual(s).)

In this day and age, with the way in which people can voraciously piece together information to uncover the identities of people involved in almost any kind of incident, the organization has a responsibility to protect the privacy of anyone involved in whatever happened. The pressure by fans to know precisely what got Montgomery fired doesn’t exactly make for an environment in which they could reasonably assume that privacy would be protected.

We know that Montgomery’s dismissal was not criminal in nature or related to team performance. We also know that it was such a breach of professional conduct that it resulted in the firing of a man that, generally, was liked and respected among the Stars staff, players, and media.

Not unlike Ron Washington’s departure from the Texas Rangers years ago, we may never know the full story of Montgomery’s abrupt dismissal from the Dallas Stars organization. That’s something Stars fans may have to come to terms with.