by Matt Barkett

December 10, 2015

Steve Sarkisian, the recently fired University of Southern California head football coach, has a drinking problem. Apparently he’s had one for years. After he allegedly showed up bombed for a morning practice on October 11 and was sent home by his assistant coaches, USC athletic director Pat Haden decided it was time for an “indefinite leave of absence” so Sarkisian could deal with his “health issues.”

A day later, Haden changed his mind and fired Sarkisian after reports emerged he was also drinking before a USC-Arizona State football game and numerous media reported prior incidents of out-of-control drinking while he was coaching at the University of Washington. Haden said following the firing that USC was aware of at least one recent incident bad enough to earn Sarkisian a final warning and put him on a “zero tolerance” policy so that one more slip-up could mean the end for him at USC.

So, this is a common story, right? People have drinking problems, drug problems, gambling problems – you name it. Sometimes the problems take over and people lose their jobs as a result, and, in many cases, finally get help. Sarkisian learned of the firing for cause – which means USC doesn’t have to pay his remaining salary – while headed to a rehab center, where he pursued a course of treatment for alcohol abuse.

Well, the story got more interesting on December 7 when Sarkisian filed a lawsuit against USC, seeking $12.6 million and claiming discrimination against him for his “disability” – in this case, alcoholism. Now USC may be on the hook for Sarkisian’s contract after all, and his attorneys may seek a lot more – perhaps upwards of $30 million – because of how the firing went down and USC’s alleged decision not to intervene sooner with support.

All of this adds up to a really important question in handling employees as a personal crisis looms over them. When is the right time to be patient and try to help, and when is it time to say enough is enough – you’re fired? And what are the consequences to the employer? Clearly, USC felt it could do this and not pay Sarkisian’s contract because of his actions, but now Sarkisian’s lawsuit is claiming he actually should have been paid because of his actions – or his “disability” – which the University tolerated but now could cost it a lot more in the end. A court will decide, unless a booster decides to ante up settlement money to put an end to this mess so USC can just Fight On.