Lawsuits, a problematic star, a brutal fight: What is happening at the NFL Network?

Recent allegations involve former New England Patriot Willie McGinest, who hasn't appeared on the network after a highly disturbing video of him emerged last month.

Mike Freeman

There are few better places for football addicts than the NFL Network.

This of course makes sense. It's, you know, a football channel. Yet as a groupie of it, I'm still amazed at the high quality of its programming and journalism. The fantasy show is charming and informative. Good Morning Football is opinionated and pleasantly goofy (I've appeared on the show a few times). The network's scouts and analysts are smart and informative. Their writers and on-air personalities are talented journalists who have the leeway to talk about racial issues in the NFL and even criticize it.

But there's a problem.

The network has a culture issue. No business, no human being is perfect, but the NFL Network continues to be plagued by a steady stream of problems that seem systemic. It ranges from the suspensions of employees, including former players, for sexual harassment in 2017, to more accusations of the same in a lawsuit in 2018, to the allegations against former New England Patriot Willie McGinest, who hasn't appeared on the network after a highly disturbing video of him emerged last month.

Michael Irvin talks to Chiefs coach Andy Reid on Super Bowl opening night on Feb 6, 2023.

During Super Bowl week, analyst Michael Irvin was sent home by the network following allegations of inappropriate behavior towards a female Marriott employee. Irvin has denied the allegations and sued the hotel chain for defamation.

What's happening at the NFL Network seems clear to me. The mentality of the NFL itself has seeped into its bloodstream. There are corners of the league where rogue elements do what they want with few repercussions. Think Dan Snyder. Or even Jerry Jones. Think certain NFL locker rooms and players. No, not all owners. No, not all players. But enough.

The belief system of a Snyder and others in the NFL – I'll say what I want, I'll do what I want – occasionally infects the network like the flu, and the network, like the NFL itself, hasn't figured out how to fully immunize itself.

This is why you continue to see issues.

Alex Riethmiller, spokesman for NFL Media, told USA TODAY Sports in an email: “NFL Media strives to foster an environment where all employees feel respected and valued, and we don’t tolerate behavior that detracts from that goal.”

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Why is all of this important? The NFL Network is one of the most vital properties in sports television. League and team executives, and players, appear on it regularly. Its insiders break news on it. When it comes to football, it's as key as ESPN.

The NFL Network is also a reflection of how the league itself operates. 

"From periodic controversies regarding the behavior, alleged or actual, of on-air talent," said Mike Florio, who runs the site ProFootballTalk and has written about the network, in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports, "to legitimate concerns repeatedly raised by (NFL.com columnist and author) Jim Trotter regarding diversity in the newsroom and in the editorial function, something seems to be missing when it comes to the NFL covering the NFL." 

Alleged rampant sexual harassment

The NFL Network was hit with several sexual harassment lawsuits starting in 2017. 

The first came from a wardrobe stylist, Jami Cantor, who worked at the network for a decade. She described a series of sexually inappropriate encounters with NFL Network employees including Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor, and Heath Evans. There were three other players who didn't work at the network at the time of the filing of the suit, but were accused of harassment as well, and they were Donovan McNabb, Warren Sapp and Eric Davis. Evans later denied any wrongdoing. McNabb and Davis had already left the network for ESPN and were eventually fired by that network.

Cantor alleged that Faulk, a longtime analyst for the network, greeted her by "fondling her breasts and groping her behind," the complaint said. Faulk "became more aggressive," the complaint said, including one instance where Faulk was accused of inviting Cantor to his hotel room where she said Faulk exposed his genitals and made sexually suggestive comments. The lawsuit was eventually settled. 

One of the more striking allegations was that Cantor said Eric Weinberger, an executive producer at the NFL Network, sent nude pictures of himself to her. He'd previously left for The Ringer but once the accusations became public, Weinberger was placed on administrative leave and later fired.

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In 2018, a second sexual harassment lawsuit was filed. In this one, makeup artist Erin McParland claimed that Irvin had to be repeatedly reminded to not touch her.

McParland wrote a first person account of her time at the NFL Network. In one part, she says of Irvin: "...Once, on the set of GameDay, he grabbed my waist while I was powdering him on set during a commercial break. I was mortified. Not only was this unwanted attention not acceptable, I was worried that everyone witnessing this might believe I thought this was okay. Or worse—welcomed."

"From then on, my guard with Irvin was up," McParland wrote. "I went out of my way to avoid him, and if I did have to work with him, I’d have to remind him to 'not touch.' In what world is it normal for someone to have to remind their coworker to not touch them?"

So the lawsuit that included Irvin was in 2018, and here we are, five years later, and Irvin is again accused of improper behavior.

A shocking, violent moment

I can't say that I know McGinest well, but over the course of his career, and my covering the league, we did cross paths. He was also a regular on the NFL Network.

If you had asked me if the McGinest that I've known, and the thoughtful person I always saw on the network, would ever be involved in such a violent incident, I would have never believed it.

McGinest was charged with two felonies after getting into a brawl at a Los Angeles nightclub. He faces up to eight years in prison.

“Most of all, I am disappointed in myself, as I know this is an isolated incident and is not reflective of my faith, role as a father, life's body of work, or the role model I've worked hard to become," McGinest said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.

“Rest assured, I will take whatever steps necessary to restore the public trust, mend damaged relationships, and ensure this never happens again."

Is it fair to say what McGinest did is part of the NFL Network's problems? Maybe not. If I got into a huge fight, it would not mean USA TODAY Sports has a culture problem.

But if there was a history of issues with violence, where people seemed to not care about repercussions of their violent actions, my fight just might reflect that reality.

Is there a systemic problem?

Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, while working at the NFL Network, was accused of sexual harassment in 2017.

Think of it this way. If there was an NFL team that had these issues, what would many of us be saying?

The conversation would focus on that franchise having systemic problems. No question.

The network would counter that's false and say that it disciplined the men accused of harassment with suspensions and eventually they were let go. That's true...

... Except for Irvin.

Maybe Irvin has never acted inappropriately. Maybe he didn't in the case at the Marriott hotel, either, but this is the second time – at least – he's been accused of improper behavior.

I know dozens of people at the NFL Network and so many are really good humans and journalists. These people keep the network on the right path.

Those people need to take full control of the network. Until they do, there are going to be issues.

Maybe systemic ones.