Nowak Lawsuit

Court documents show Union fired Nowak after league directive

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Editor’s Note: The recently unsealed documents from Peter Nowak’s lawsuit against the Union are voluminous. We’ll have more on the latest revelations later.

Philadelphia Union fired Peter Nowak only after the MLS league office specifically ordered it and the MLS Players Union threatened to strike, according to court documents unsealed on Tuesday.

The documents, first reported Tuesday by Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com, reveal previously unknown details and claims related to Nowak’s controversial tenure as Union coach, his firing, and his subsequent lawsuit against the club, including:

  • Nowak physically hit his players as part of hazing rituals he also led while coaching D.C. United. With the Union, he literally spanked rookies, struck players with a sandal, and dip his hand in ice water before spanking. Nowak claimed he had approval from Union management and even had assistant coaches tape the ritual.
  • Nowak traded a player — apparently former captain Danny Califf — two weeks after he initiated a whistleblower complaint on behalf of Union players about abusive practices toward his teammates.
  • Nowak mocked players with concussions, pressured them to play through concussions, refused to acknowledge the existence of the medical condition, and called them a “pussy” for not playing after having endured one.
  • Nowak repeatedly violated league rules involving trialists and home grown players, resulting in league fines, reclamation of Union allocation money, and cuts to future portions of transfer fees related to those players.
  • In 2011, Nowak allegedly told Shep Messing, a soccer broadcaster and associate of Nowak and Sakiewicz, “I have to get the hell out of Philadelphia. These guys are stupid. They don’t know what they’re doing and they’re broke. They have no money.”

An arbitrator ruled against Nowak in his lawsuit against the Union and ordered him to pay $454,258.89 to the Union for legal costs incurred in the case, according to the documents.

Nowak vs. the whistleblower

Despite the release of the documents, some details are redacted from the files. Notably, this includes what appear to be names and many details related to Union players’ complaint with the MLS Players Union in March 2012 about Nowak.

The documents do show, however, that Nowak met with two Union players about the complaint and directed them — and subsequently the full team — not to go to the players union with such matters.

Nowak subsequently sought out the whistleblower who brought the complaint to the players union. First he directly asked the player in question and then went to players union chief Bob Foose, according to the court documents. (Nowak denied having any phone conversations with Foose.) Foose characterized it as an “extremely unusual conversation” and feared Nowak would retaliate against the player.

Nowak then traded the player, which he said was because of the player’s decline in performance and costing the Union a game.

After the trade, league and players union officials met on May 22, 2012 to discuss Nowak’s retaliation against players.

Only one Union player was traded between March 15, when Union scouting director Diego Gutierrez first learned of players complaints to the Union (which he passed along to Nowak), and May 22:

Former Union captain Danny Califf, on May 17.

The infamous trail run without water

Nowak was suspended after initiating a physical altercation with a Chivas USA player during a game on April 21.  After he returned, the Union continued their season-long struggles and lost to winless Toronto FC on May 26.

Court documents show Nowak subsequently canceled scheduled days off, requiring players to cancel travel plans, and made players show up at an outdoor trail outside the YSC Academy.

He then made players run over 10 miles in 80-degree weather and denied them water, according to multiple unnamed players’ testimonies. This included players who had been previously ruled out of practice due to injuries and who, according to a filing by the Union, suffered injury setbacks. At the time, MLS had begun stopping games for water breaks because of high temperatures.

Union trainer Paul Rushing — and possibly then-assistant coach John Hackworth, though the testimony indicates his words to Nowak were not heard by players — argued openly with Nowak, concerned that players would suffer dehydration.

“You know what?” Rushing told Nowak, according to one unnamed player’s testimony. “You’re in charge here, but I refuse to have my hands in this because it isn’t right. So if this is what you want to do, I’m washing my hands of this. I want no part of this. But this isn’t right … [Nowak] — I remember him saying this distinctively — was like … ‘I don’t care. I’m going to make men out of these guys.'”

Rushing subsequently tried to sneak water to the players, but Nowak took the water bottles from him and threw them into the woods.

Nowak testified he denied the water because one player was sick and he didn’t want other players infected, despite there being clear, previously established measures in place for setting aside sick players’ water.

Rushing later brought his concerns to a league official involved in overseeing medical matters around the league, according to the court documents. His account, combined with other claims about Nowak, set off “major alarm bells” with Todd Durbin, Executive Vice President of Competition, Player and Labor Relations, for MLS.

This set off the internal league investigation that led to Nowak’s firing.

Union players were “extremely afraid” of “consequences” or “retaliation” from Nowak if it became known they took part in the league investigation, so the players union asked the league to grant them confidentiality, according to the court documents. This had only been done once before by the league, during a similar investigation into misconduct while Nowak coached D.C. United.

On June 7, Nowak again limited water to players during a practice, according to the Union’s court filing. Nowak denied this.

Nowak’s court filing indicates he was never interviewed by the league as part of the investigation and had no opportunity to dispute the findings or rectify problems before he was fired. Sakiewicz testified that Nowak had corrected all previous issues he had been asked to address, except the hazing.

League orders Nowak’s firing

On June 10, 2012, Durbin told Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz that Nowak “needs to be fired,” according to the documents, and could not be near Union players. Sakiewicz wanted more time to review the findings of the investigation and talk with league ownership.

The players union took a similar position as Durbin on June 1, saying Nowak “needed to be removed as coach of the team and that it was not appropriate nor was it safe for our members to have him as coach of the team.” This was unprecedented for the players union.

When Sakiewicz did not fire Nowak on Monday, June 11, Durbin emailed Sakiewicz, according to the court documents: “This cannot last until the weekend. You gave me your assurance this would happen wed. [sic]. It was my recommendation it happen this morning.”

Durbin sent Sakiewicz the league’s findings on June 12.

Sakiewicz kept his word and fired Nowak two days later.

“I was disgusted by all of this,” Sakiewicz testified. “I still am.”

77 Comments

  1. I wish there was a way I could retroactively cancel my season tickets for those early years. It sickens me that my money went to support a club with an atmosphere that would allow this abuse.

  2. How culpable is Sak in this? Seems remarkable to me that this was allowed to happen. If the same thing happened to the Eagles or Sixers, it would be front page Inquirer reportage for a week. At least.

    • Well he apparently admitted in court to laughing about Nowak’s hazing, and called it “a bonding experience”. Whether or not he was joking, this was highly irresponsible of Sak. His actions led Nowak to believe Sak was in-line with such actions taken by Nowak. Basically condoning the hazing. What is even more disconcerting is the fact that these hazing rituals were going on while Nowak was involved with D.C. United, and the league knew about it and had hearings over it. Yet Nowak is allowed to coach again for the Union and continue such practices years later. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Attitudes emanate top-downward. Sak’s actions just re-enforced the behavior and maintained a negative and oppressive work environment. They both should have been removed years ago.

    • I used to say that nobody could adequately prepare for the train wreck that Nowak became. Now that I’ve seen that this was a pattern that began at D.C. United, it seems clear that the Union did not adequately do their due diligence on his track record. Still, Nowak had a really good resume, so it’s understandable to a degree why, particularly when you consider that Sakiewicz was operating on an MLS 1.0 basis.

      The Union and Sakiewicz could have done better, but I think Nowak was the cautionary tale that had to happen for everyone in MLS to learn from the hard way so that it’s never repeated.

      Also, it’s important to remember that hazing rookies has been common in American pro sports for decades.

      • Darth Harvey says:

        I could be living in a bubble, but I have never heard of a coach actually participating in hazing…I’m not trying to be argumentative, I just want to hear some examples…

      • My golf coach hazed freshman – mostly verbally… harmless stuff but…. an example none the less.

      • It happened in the Rose Tree Media football league, to me and others. Granted it was in the late 80’s . But that wasn’t all that long ago.

      • Union Bible says:

        Okay I know that hazing happens in the amateur ranks by idiots, but I’ve never heard of a professional coach hazing professional players….

      • Also there used to be a coach named Bobby Knight. He’s kind of infamous for it. Maybe not ‘professional’ per say, but in Indiana, they may argue that point.

      • I would move “spanking” into a separate category from “hazing,” maybe one labeled “assault.” Hazing is carrying older player’s equipment, filling water bottles, running errands, saying little quips like “yes sir” or “yes captain” or something like that. The effect is that rookies learn their place, go through the rigors of the sport, and come out on the other side a stronger person and brother of the older players. Acts beyond that, which still happen way to much, go beyond hazing and blur the line between appropriate and criminal.

      • I can’t think of examples of coaches doing the hazing either. Hazing is usually done by the players and simply condoned by the coaches who don’t step in to stop it.

      • I think that’s a fine line to draw. One basically equates to the other. Hazing is abusive.

      • Oh, I very much agree with you. On my high school football team, I think either during or right before my freshman year, the upper classmen literally held a guy down and crapped on his face during summer training camp. With another, they held him down and punched him in the nuts repeatedly. This was their idea of hazing. The head coach had to have known beforehand that hazing went on at training camp. He was not a good man, for plenty of reasons.

      • Wow Dan. Just Wow. I just hope those two kids turned out alright.

      • I had some inside contacts to MLB and NFL some years ago and word was Parcells, Buddy Ryan, Glanville, and a few others I can’t remember right off the top of my head were big proponents of that stuff, BUT…They did it Col. Nathan Jessup style (A Few Good Men):
        .
        Kaffee: Did you order the code red?
        .
        Jessep: (quietly) I did the job you sent me to do.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    The final bullet point above is concerning on many many levels…
    .
    … I remember thinking when Union hired Nowak, well at least they brought somebody in who is seasoned and has won both as a player and manager.
    .
    Can’t fault the club for entrusting a guy like Nowak to kick start a franchise. The fact he felt the ownership had no idea what it was doing is telling and indicting of both Mr Sugarman, who we now know has limited game knowledge, and more importantly of Mr. Sakiewicz… who by all accounts should have significant understanding but did not have the confidence of a coach who obviously knew how to win.
    .
    We can all be thankful Peter Nowak left the club for innumerable reasons… but just as importantly… we can be grateful Mr. Sakiewicz was asked to leave as well.
    .
    Here’s to a new fresh start where we all need to be just a bit patient as though this franchise was literally starting from scratch again. My belief is it can be pretty well turned around for good and not as a flash…in about 18 months +\- half a season.
    .
    .
    Lastly and slightly in jest…
    .
    … Is it possible we could just think of Peter Nowak as eastern bloc ‘old school’. Probably not.

    • It may be in jest, but isn’t this the kind of attitude that allowed this situation to occur in the first place?

      • Well…. I’ve taken plenty of 10 mile trail runs without water. No problem. Stay in the aerobic zone and it is not at all hard. As for the players with injuries that I can’t defend so you got me there.
        .
        As for the hazing…hazing has become a hot button topic over the last few years…
        .
        Once again…not saying any of it is right.. just stiring the pot in the name of open conversation.

      • I know you had no real meaning behind it. You weren’t standing on the pulpit decreeing it as new law. But I think it’s important to realize the consequences of such things. How our laughter may turn into someone believing such things are condoned. That’s all. Being a bit more introspective never hurt. Agree totally about the open conversation.

      • It’s one thing if you’re going out on a weekend run, you come back drink some and you’re recovered.
        .
        If you’re training day in day out, hydration becomes much more important – especially if you’ve been training all day before having to run because the coach is mad at you.

    • Well … the Stasi, KGB, various autocrats (Putin!) and others were eastern block old school, so sure. 😉 The description definitely fits, even if not going to the comic extreme that I just went to.

      • I appreciate your ability to smile and wink…
        .
        Ultimately, satire and humor is the only method sometimes of making sense of those things which make no sense.
        .
        I’ve stood in a few trauma wards aghast at what was happening – all the while cracking jokes with the others… cause, really — how else is there to cope.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Dan, wasn’t just eastern bloc.

        Bear Bryant at Texas A & M when John David Crowe was on the team, apparently.

      • Oh, definitely. My high school (American) football coach might fit this too.

        I loathe this school of coaching.

      • I had it in pop warner football. When the league was informed of the coach’s actions he was relieved of duty and sent packing. Also not a fan.

  4. Wow. No idea what a bad guy Nowak was. And of course Sakiewicz enabled all this, he had to be pressured to fire Nowak. And didn’t Sak have a say in trading Califf? Unbelievable it went on as long as it did. Terrible.

  5. Screw you Nowak, Screw you Sakiewicz! I hope you get this and understand that you are both awful people. You took something so glorious, a team started by fans in this country and did your best to destroy it. Your incompetence is sickening. It’s taken years to move past your antics and frankly still continues to this day. Know now though, this team will survive and eventually thrive while both you will never work in this profession with any meaning ever again.

    • They may not work in MLS ever again, but I wouldn’t be so sure about other leagues. Especially Nowak. Someone, in some other country is bound to give him a job and let his masochistic tendencies run wild all over again.

      • Nowak is working again, isn’t he? I thought he was either the Olympic or Men’s National Team coach for one of the smaller Caribbean countries now…

      • Head coach of Antigua and Barbuda Football Association. As well as Technical and Personal advisor to the president of Caribbean Football Union. Wikipedia entry.

      • fleurdemax says:

        Ah, CONCACAF. Of course he’ll fit right in there.

      • I think you meant sadistic rather than masochistic – but agreed

    • Nowak and SAk made the playoffs what did the Irish mob accomplish LAST PLACE

    • King Tuchas says:

      Sakiewicz is working again, but not in soccer. Heck, he’s not controlling a team, but an entire league. He’s now the head of the National Lacrosse League (which, until two years ago, had a well-loved franchise called the Philadelphia Wings).

  6. pragmatist says:

    When they announced that the court documents would be unsealed, I was excited to be able to read the details of the trial.
    .
    To say that I was unprepared for what was released would be a major understatement. I am flabbergasted at the sheer and complete incompetence of the ownership and front office during Nowak’s tenure. It’s astounding.
    .
    How many players will not fully develop because he crushed them because was going to “make men” out of them?
    .
    Honestly, this all just makes me more excited for the Earnie Era to begin in full. No pressure, buddy. You just have to clean up an Exxon Valdez-sized mess…and you have 2 months.
    GO!

    • Exxon Valdez is this page’s winner.

    • I’m going to make men out of these guys…by smacking them on the butt with my ice cold hand!

    • …. plenty more than 2 months – but I get your point.

    • move on, nothing to see here – certainly nothing comparable to the worst environmental disaster caused by human activity. we all like to think the Union are important, and I don’t downplay the conviction of the interest. The “employee” abuses here are cotton-candy to the systemic and one-time abuses faced by legions of workers over the past 100 years. The 20 or so soccer players faced nothing remotely close to these abuses. Nowak and Sak were asses? so what, we already knew that.

      • In defense I do not believe a comparison was being drawn between a human disaster of epic proportion and early Union handling. I believe the disaster was being used only in a literary sense as hyperbole. Pragmatist is based in reality as a rule — and granted clemency on this one.
        .
        On a scale model… one can argue this is a sizable mess to clean up and move on from.
        .
        From my POV I would be perfectly happy never hearing another word of Mr. Nowak and Mr. Sakiewicz… also in truth as highlighted elsewhere… this would be enormous news if it happened in a sport that actually mattered in the general US public conscience…. which is why we all owe a debt to PSP for bringing us our news.

      • fair point – is that HO or O? where do you come down?

        My more cogent thought is that teams rebuild all the time, some from worse spots than the Union and from worse prior regimes. Let’s move forward – how ’bout a Fresca?

      • Well played. Well played indeed Judge Smails.

      • This list has the Valdez spill at #24, so now who’s guilty of hyperbole?
        .
        Seriously, if I don’t have exaggeration and wildly inappropriate metaphors, I’m dead in the water…
        .
        😉

      • Dead in the water…icwhatudidthere…

  7. This is truly astonishing. I already thought the worst of Nowak, and this has exceeded my expectations.

    You know what also disgusts me? That the Union wanted these records to remain sealed. Apparently they are so embarrassed by what they allowed that they wanted it buried. I guess I can’t say I blame them. But thank GOD Sakiewicz is gone!

    • I myself am truly not surprised by the sealing of the documents. Unfortunately it happens all the time, in business and in regular life. Just like Bill Cosby and his rape pills. Unfortunately many more women were exposed to his actions without the knowledge of the beast he was.

    • this franchise went south when Chris Albright was hired, just look at the record before and after? he was supposed to bring them to the next level, NOT

      • You can’t seriously be championing a cause for Sak. And I don’t remember anyone, n e one, saying Albright was going to bring the Union to the next level. If they did I think most of us would have laughed at that. If anything he was thrown into the fire and told to find his way out. Especially considering he was on the bench the year before his move to management.

      • Chris he has been there for over 3 years and every season got worse, how much time does he need 5-10 years? same old sh_t different year, he has a lot on his shoulders too.

      • You’re absolutely right. He does have a lot on his shoulders. Especially being throw in to what has amounted to be the de facto G.M. without the title. A role he was not prepared for, nor able to perform up to the standards one might expect. But that is besides the point. Because if anything, he was meant to be an assistant to a G.M. and get experience while learning on the job. A G.M. that NEVER materialized under the direction of Sak. Who was given the directive, by the owner to find said G.M. which Sak avoided doing for nearly two years. With apparently no plans what so ever to fill that position. We came to find this out due to his being fired by the owner and subsequent revealing of the deal Sak had with Sugar. So all your blame about Albright should be aimed at Sak. A) because HE hired Albright. And B) he didn’t hire the G.M. that was actually supposed to do a G.M.’s job. In doing so, Sak tried to over-value his importance and get away on the cheap by giving G.M. responsibilities to a person who was not hired to actually do said duties in the first place.

      • he gets paid do do a professional job he is not with the team for the fun of it what has Chris accomplished in the last 3 years? Tired of everybody blaming one person it was a team fu-k up, stop drinking the KoolAid

      • I’m done with your delusions. Good bye.

      • jerome, there is no way you can seriously think albright has been in control of this team for the past three years

      • James Lockerbie says:

        +1

      • James Lockerbie says:

        Troll alert Jerome is a troll or worst he is Nowak or sak

  8. It is without question a request by me and many many others, I am sure, who visit this page often that the rightful original genius to the Union Bible….
    .
    …update the chapters….as there is so much to write…and
    .
    …. so much to translate so much to translate so much to translate.
    .
    Sincerely,
    an apostle.

    • The chapter of Nowak being the book of revelations?

    • Zizouisgod says:

      The short turbulent history of this club would make a great book (or at least a 30 for 30 episode). You could say that Nowak is the clear villan, but he’s got a lot of competition for the role with Sak. If anything, the actions of Nowak and inaction of Sak/Ownership raises the interesting moral dilemma to the reader of “what would you do in this situation?”

      Now with some of the main characters (Sak, Nowak, Califf, Modragon, Gutierrez, Hackworth, Orozco, etc) no longer with the club as well as with these newly released details, people may be more willing to talk. Their prime motivation will be to try and improve their position with the court of public opinion, but the more pieces that the writer has at his/her disposal, the better story that it will become.

    • Union Bible says:

      Your prayers have been heard and will be answered my pachydermic apostle….patience is a virtue that tests all unionites

    • James Lockerbie says:

      Yes I’ll will follow. Waiting for the new Chapters of the Union Bible

  9. Wow! That Nowak train wreck was epic!! It is a shame he soiled the badge the fans fought so hard to bring here! Glad he is gone, and NutSac too! Also…glad to see the comment section starting off the New Year with a bang! Looking forward to the Bible 2.0….if I can use that…apologies if I can’t…. Off to The Cliff to receive some cookies I left behind.

  10. Lucky Striker says:

    fustercluck of a franchise. The people deserve better.

  11. You can go to 9th & Hunting Park and get a better coach than the kick and run style the Union have now

  12. The good news?
    .
    None of this made espnfc pages…. seems the only thing of concern in world football is where Pep is going to coach and why hasn’t Mourinho been hired somewhere.
    .
    phew.
    .
    and of course, Union are quite lucky the Eagles are in a dire coaching search themselves at the moment as…. well you can all figure out the rest….
    .
    If I had just a bit more initiative…I’d like to strike up a weekly conversation with the Big Ragu Anthony Gargano about our club- kind of a State of the Union… once weekly objective check in with a radio personality to actually show the DelVal that somebody gives a shit… generally when soccer comes up his morning show isn’t as ridiculous about it as the “big bozo” at 94.1 who still dismisses the sport completely, what’s his name—- you know the guy…. invented that all important Philadelphia annual Wing Bowl…. damn name escapes me…. I pay that guy NO mind – – – at all.

  13. So how culpable are Hackworth and Vartughian? Just following orders? Should John Hackworth, a man who counts spanking video production on his CV, be in charge of the U17 US squad? Neither side denied videos were made. Neither denied the assistants were involved. Neither were called to testify. Either both sides committed perjury and/or slander OR a coach who approves of systematic hazing is in charge of US futures. Awesome.

    I thought he was just an awful and insipid coach without creativity, now we know he’s even worse.

  14. Roger Allaway says:

    In the bullet items at the top of this story, the one that really caught my eye and really struck me with how out of control Nowak was, was the one about concussions. Then there was no mention of that in the rest of the story. That surprised me.

    • pragmatist says:

      The best part about that story is they used a picture of him wearing DC United gear. How about we not correct them? 😉

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