TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Two former NHL off-ice officials allege in a newly filed lawsuit that they were fired for reporting that a colleague used racist and sexually charged language for years while working for the league.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, lawyers for David Walkowiak and James Watkins, former crew officials who worked for the NHL during Tampa Bay Lightning games.
Walkowiak and Watkins alleged in their wrongful dismissal lawsuit that both were fired on Feb. 27, 2020, ending two decades-long careers, after both men alleged that their colleague repeatedly used racist language at work.
Watkins had worked for the NHL since 1998 while Walkowiak was hired in September 2005.
The man regularly made racially offensive comments about African Americans, including players, according to the court records. At the time, the Lightning had at least three Black players when the comments were made.
The colleague who made the comments allegedly referred to African American players, and others, as “chocolate,” as a “code word,” court records allege.
According to the lawsuit, comments were also directed toward veteran Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, known for singing the National Anthem at Tampa Bay Lightning games.
Walkowiak and Watkins claim that they reported the worker’s behavior to their manager who they allege failed to take any action for several years. According to the lawsuit, Walkowiak and Watkins reported the behavior in November and December 2019.
Days later, the lawsuit alleges Watkins and Walkowiak’s supervisor tried to terminate Watkins, beginning a months-long process of alleged retaliation and discussion with NHL officials. The court documents filed by Watkins and Walkowiak allege the NHL had sought to fire Watkins and used their supervisor to do so.
The plaintiffs told NHL officials that they had video proof of the racist and derogatory comments. In December 2019, Watkins told officials and an NHL attorney about the variety of comments made, and how reports of the language had gone without action.
An investigation by the NHL began, the filing claims. Watkins and Walkowwiak said they were concerned they’d be fired for reporting the problem. The investigation continued, despite hesitation by the plaintiffs, who were assured they would not face retaliation for blowing the whistle, a federally protected activity.
In January 2020, the NHL fired both the worker who had allegedly made the racist comments and the supervisor. Despite assurances by the NHL and the NHL’s attorney, according to the lawsuit, Walkowiak and Watkins were fired a month later.
Watkins and Walkowiak are suing the NHL for the loss of their jobs, and are requesting a jury trial. The lawsuit requests both plaintiffs receive lost income, raises, promotions, and benefits which they allege they were unlawfully deprived of, as well as compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and a return to work, in addition to coverage of attorneys fees and court costs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson told 8 On Your Side in an email “Vinik Sports Group does not comment on any claims or litigation.”
The NHL also told 8 On Your Side they are not commenting on the matter.