The Arizona Cardinals cheating scandal, explained

Michael Bidwell has consistently been one of the worst, most-disliked owners in the NFL, but always managed to fly under the radar thanks to Dan Snyder dominating the conversation. Now with the sale of the Washington Commanders looming it’s more difficult for the owner of the Arizona Cardinals to be ignored, and a major fire was lit under him on Tuesday when former executive Terry McDonough alleged Bidwell has a history of gross misconduct,

McDonough is seeking arbitration from the NFL and alleges that Bidwell not only discriminated against minority employees and women, but organized a scheme to cheat ahead of the 2018 season. McDonough believes his criticism of the plan led to his demotion and his career being irreparably damaged.

What are these cheating allegations exactly?

On July 4, 2018 former Cardinals GM Steve Keim was cited for driving under the influence, registering a 0.19 blood alcohol reading — over two times the legal limit. Keim pled guilty to the charges, and as a result he was fined $200,000 by the team and given a five-week suspension, which began on July 17 of the same year.

The decision to suspend Keim came from Cardinals leadership itself. At the time it was widely believed that it was move by the team to try and get in front of the charges, rather than waiting to see if the NFL would intervene. This allowed Bidwell and the Cardinals’ brass to call their own shots on the suspension, rather than risk losing their GM for a more significant amount of time.

McDonough alleges that Bidwell couldn’t handle his GM being away from the team in the weeks leading up to training camp, so he came up with a scheme. Bidwell required both McDonough, and then-head coach Steve Wilks to use burner phones to keep communicating with Keim during his suspension. McDonough claims that neither he, nor Wilks wanted to participate in the scheme — but on voicing their disagreement Bidwell berated them, pressuring them into using the phones, and wrote McDonough up for insubordination.

This is the heart of McDonough’s claims, and why he’s seeking arbitration from the NFL.

“In response to McDonough’s objection to the illicit burner phone scheme, Bidwill cursed at, berated, and formally reprimanded McDonough, and ultimately demoted him — irrevocably damaging the trajectory of McDonough’s 34-year career in the National Football League. Bidwill also subjected McDonough to bullying, mocking, harassing and abusive behavior.”

The Cardinals responded with a series of statements outlining allegations against McDonough. In part they claim not only was the burner phone story not the idea of Bidwell, but that the owner himself was the one who put an end to it.

“During the time that one of our previous executives was serving a team-imposed suspension for misconduct unrelated to the organization, we took additional measures when learned that another executive had interfered with the protocol of that suspension. That second incident involved obtaining mobile phones for communicating during the suspension period. Mr. Bidwill took swift action when he learned of that situation and directed the phones be retrieved and communications stopped. Terry was not privy to the full sequence of those circumstances but has nevertheless contrived the situation as a broad conspiracy to undermine him personally.”

There’s more to the claims in arbitration though.

McDonough also alleges discrimination and abuse by Bidwell

Part of McDonough’s claims outline the unfair treatment of Steve Wilks following the 2018 season. Wilks, one of the most sought-after head coaches at the time, left his job as defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers for a head coaching opportunity. Wilks signed a multi-year contract to coach the Cardinals, but McDonough alleges that Bidwell “sabotaged” Wilks’ first season as head coach, before firing Wilks and replacing him with Kliff Kingsbury.

This is notable, because it’s more or less consistent with what Wilks has alleged in his lawsuit against the NFL alongside Brian Flores — both of whom say they were discriminated against by not being given true opportunities as head coaches. Wilks in particular believe he was used as a “bridge coach” with the intention of being a “fall guy” for the failings of Keim as GM.

McDonough claims that Bidwell was routinely abusive to employees and staff, making them “fearful” of the owner. In addition when an internal employment satisfaction survey was done, McDonough says Bidwell intercepted the results to ensure criticism of him as an owner wasn’t made public. In addition the arbitration claim alleges Bidwell was routinely harassing employees.

The grievance also said Bidwill reduced two pregnant women — one five months pregnant, the other seven months — to tears after screaming at them with “abusive and bullying mistreatment.”

The Cardinals deny these claims as well, making their own allegations against McDonough by saying he was routinely insubordinate, and that his view of the situation was entirely subjective and incorrect.

“Contrary to Terry’s claim, the 2019 employee survey referenced in the complaint was not ignored but in fact formed the basis for significant enhancements to our workplace practices. That included creating a new role for a Chief People Officer along with boosting our Human Resources staff and adding robust employee wellness initiatives.

The bulk of Terry’s other stated complaints amount to his entirely subjective view that he was verbally mistreated and professionally thwarted by our team’s leadership. But that claim runs contrary to many documented instances, over several years, in which Terry extended unsolicited praise to Mr. Bidwill, in particular for the extensive support and encouragement that Terry had received, especially during trying times in his personal life. Our leadership also repeatedly encouraged and facilitated Terry’s wish to continue his career advancement.”

This might not just be he-said-they-said, though

Normally in situations like this it’s very difficult to ascertain the truth, but McDonough claims he has receipts. Not only does his filed grievance allege he has the full text message history of his interactions with Bidwell over the burner phone scheme, but also that he’s in possession of the 2019 employee surveys which note that Bidwell was a negative impact on the workplace and that a wide variety of employees were scared of him. In addition McDonough invoked Robert Sarver, the disgraced former owner of the Phoenix Suns, who sold the team and was fined $10M by the NBA for racial and sexual discrimination.

The grievance that McDonough submitted to Bidwill’s attorney last week and Goodell on Tuesday alleged that “Bidwill’s widespread workplace misconduct is significantly worse than the misbehavior of former crosstown Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver,” whom the NBA suspended one year and fined $10 million before he ultimately sold the franchise.

Representatives for Bidwell claim that every allegation McDonough has made is false, and they will prove in arbitration that his version of events is fabricated.