In October 2015, the University of Southern California – USC – terminated the employment of head football coach Steve Sarkisian. Pat Haden, USC’s athletic director, fired the coach for cause, stating Sarkisian failed to meet expectations. In December 2015, Sarkisian sued the university for breach of written contract and 13 other causes of action. The suit is pending.
Paid for the pressure
Page six of the complaint details the stress Sarkisian’s job put him under. His average workweek exceeded 100 hours. He felt under constant scrutiny because USC trustees, fans and alumni expect a winning program. The complaint notes early in 2015, Sarkisian’s wife of 17 years asked for a divorce. Sarkisian’s stressful occupation coupled with his disintegrating personal life exacerbated his anxiety, depression and alcoholism.
Sarkisian’s annual salary exceeded $1 million. He brought in more than that in endorsements. He was given the use of two vehicles and was eligible for up to nearly $500,000 in bonuses. Sarkisian was the head football coach of the University of Washington from 2008 until he resigned in 2013 to become the head coach at USC. He understood the rigors of coaching – specifically, coaching at a big school with an immensely popular and lucrative football program. For these rigors, he was paid a commensurate salary.
The crux of Sarkisian’s lawsuit is USC failed to provide reasonable accommodation for his disability. The fourth cause of action listed is failure to accommodate under the California Government Code. The complaint also cites reasonable accommodation as defined by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Under this definition, reasonable accommodation includes providing leave for medical care.
Steve Sarkisian is an alcoholic. As the third cause of action, his complaint lists failure to engage in the interactive process. Sarkisian’s lawyers contend USC knew of their client’s disability but did nothing to address it. Only when Sarkisian’s alcoholism interfered with his job performance did the school act – by firing him.
According to the complaint, “As a direct and proximate result of Defendant USC’s unlawful conduct, Steve Sarkisian has suffered and will continue to suffer pain and suffering; anxiety; embarrassment; humiliation …”
Most alcoholics don’t realize they have a drinking problem or feel the need to get treatment. But most alcoholics don’t earn over $2 million a year. And based on Sarkisian’s behavior leading up to his dismissal – as documented in the complaint – he may not have identified himself then as an alcoholic, but he knew “there was something very wrong” with his life. Alcohol was wreaking havoc in his life. Alcoholic or not, Sarkisian had a responsibility to get help before matters spiraled out of his control. He failed to admit his life was unmanageable until it was unmanageable.
Alcoholism is not a disease discovered through lab tests or X-rays. Alcoholics admit they have a problem – a disease – when their lives become unmanageable. For Sarkisian to claim his firing violated the terms of his contract or California law simply misses the point. It was his responsibility to seek treatment before his behavior made treatment a necessity.
Addicts like Sarkisian often make poor choices, but it doesn’t have to be the end of their careers or their lives. Sovereign’s Court Services division provides behavioral health treatment and guidance for patients engaged in legal issues. For more information, call our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Darren Fraser, Sovereign Health Group writer