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The Tigers and Chris Bosio Are Being Sued

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Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, Wayne County

Last year, erstwhile Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio was fired by the team for making what General Manager Al Avila described as an “insensitive” remark towards a clubhouse attendant. Reports at the time indicated that Bosio had used the term “spider monkey” to refer to a team employee. The Tigers and Bosio differed, however, on the person to whom Bosio was referring. Bosio insisted that “Spider Monkey” was a nickname for Tigers LOOGY Daniel Stumpf. Per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale:

Bosio insists he was not using the word in a racial and disparaging context, and that it was not directed toward the clubhouse attendant. He says he referring to injured pitcher Daniel Stumpf, a white pitcher from Humble, Texas.

“Someone in our coaches’ room asked me (Monday afternoon) about Stumpf,” Bosio said. “And I said, “Oh, you mean, ‘Spider Monkey.’ That’s his nickname. He’s a skinny little white kid who makes all of these funny faces when he works out.

“The kid thought we were talking about him. He got all upset. He assumed we were talking about him. I said, “No, no, no. We’re talking about Stumpf.’

“And that was it. I swear on my mom and dad’s graves, there was nothing else to it.”

But other witnesses relayed to Ken Rosenthal and Katie Strang of the Athletic that Bosio had used the term as a slur to refer to an African-American clubhouse attendant:

Bosio called the attendant, who is African-American, a “monkey,” according to four team sources. The remark was directed toward the young man, who was collecting towels from the coaches’ room at the time, during a post-game gripe session in which Bosio was lamenting about a pitcher.

During this exchange, Bosio made a derogatory comment about one of the Tigers pitchers and then gestured toward the attendant before adding, “like this monkey here,” the sources said. The attendant pushed back at Bosio for the comment, and an additional team employee witnessed the exchange.

Obviously, the accounts relayed to Nightengale on the one hand, and Rosenthal and Strang on the other, are very different, and can’t both be true. It’s also entirely understandable why, given the fact that witnesses evidently supported the Rosenthal/Strang account, the Tigers took action to terminate Bosio. That said, the acrimony between the team and Bosio was so great after his firing that he threatened to sue the Tigers for wrongful termination. I wrote last year for Fangraphs that such a lawsuit wouldn’t stand a great chance of success. Nevertheless, Bosio sued the Tigers for wrongful termination this past February.

But Bosio wasn’t the only party exploring litigation in the wake of his firing. Last month, Derrell Coleman II, the clubhouse attendant that Rosenthal and Strang had reported was on the receiving end of Bosio’s racist remarks filed a discrimination lawsuit against Bosio and the Tigers. And the complaint, which you can read here, demonstrates that what had happened with Bosio may have been just the tip of a very foul iceberg for Detroit.

At the outset, it’s worth noting that Coleman and his lawyers took the unusual step of filing a verified complaint. A verified complaint is a lawsuit filed under oath, with penalty of perjury attached to each and every factual allegation. That’s not to say that typical lawsuits include allegations that aren’t true - every lawyer and litigant is under a legal obligation to ensure that each statement in a pleading is factually correct to the best of their knowledge. But a verified complaint takes things a step farther, placing the same meaning and weight behind each allegation as though they were statements made as part of testimony in open court or in a sworn affidavit. And as a result, the Tigers and Bosio will be required to file a sworn Answer to these allegations, admitting or denying each allegation under oath.

All of this is to say that no lawyer or litigant files a verified complaint lightly. There is a presumption of truth which necessarily comes with swearing under oath that your statements are true, and the fact that Bosio was fired for his conduct only reinforces that presumption. In light of this, what Coleman alleges Bosio did— and the Tigers tolerated— is truly horrifying.

Paragraph 9 of Coleman’s Verified Complaint

Coleman alleges that he was repeatedly punished by Bosio and other coaches for conduct which was not grounds for punishment for other clubhouse attendants. After each punishment, Coleman returned to even worse treatment.

Coleman alleges under oath that he attempted to report Bosio’s actions to other coaches, only to be threatened with reprisal for doing so.

Coleman names two coaches in particular who warned him off reporting Bosio to Tigers’ upper management.

Perhaps most distressingly, Coleman alleges that although the team was aware that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, they nonetheless compelled him to meet with management about Bosio by himself and without counsel present. Coleman asserts that this was intentional, as part of an effort by the team to pressure Coleman into promising not to sue the team in exchange for an internship with the team. Nevertheless, Coleman alleges that the team recanted on that internship. The end result of his Tigers experience, Coleman says, was depression so severe it caused suicidal ideation and hospitalization. And when Bosio sued the Tigers in February 2019, he says the Tigers conscripted him into the team’s defense.

One more point: the Complaint alleges that the Tigers didn’t act swiftly to terminate Bosio, but instead tolerated his conduct until the national media became involved.

Now, it’s worth noting that even verified complaints aren’t always true. The Tigers, for their part, have denied the allegations strenuously.

When this allegation [by Coleman against Bosio] was first brought to the attention of club management, we took swift and immediate action. We strongly refute the allegations against our organization made in Thursday’s filing. We hold all of our personnel to the highest standards of personal conduct both on and off the field, and we have a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and workplace harassment.

In other words, the Tigers want us to believe that Bosio was a single bad apple. (Bosio continues to maintain that the only person he called a “monkey” was pitcher Stumpf.) But even if Coleman’s complaint wasn’t verified, context matters.

The Bosio saga is simply the latest data point in an increasingly alarming trend of credible racial discrimination allegations persisting across Major League Baseball. This isn’t a new problem; baseball’s history of racism long made it a fertile ground for studies analyzing its effects. Even in 1970, years after baseball had been racially integrated, Anthony Pascal and Leonard Rapping noted that “inside major league baseball, players are allocated to positions, including supervisory as well as playing positions, in a manner that is difficult to explain on grounds other than racial bias.”

That problem hasn’t gone away; Coleman’s is now the second high-profile lawsuit currently alleging systematic racial discrimination in Major League Baseball, with Angel Hernandez’s case still pending. Last year, Lorena Martin’s allegations against the Seattle Mariners triggered a still-pending MLB investigation. Racially charged, if not overtly racist, language still permeates baseball broadcasts. In this context, it’s not hard to believe Coleman’s account that racist culture in the Tigers’ extended beyond a single bad apple.

From a legal perspective, this case is likely to drag on for some time. These are serious allegations, and given the complaint is verified, I don’t see any way this suit is being dismissed before trial on legal grounds. If sunlight is indeed a good disinfectant, perhaps a lawsuit like this one will help excise this ugly underbelly of baseball’s past and present.