Football star-turned-broadcaster Craig James is suing to get his job back at Fox Sports, alleging network executives fired him after one appearance because of support for traditional marriage that he expressed while running for U.S. Senate in 2012.
James was a member of the famous 'Pony Express' backfield at Southern Methodist University in the early 1980s. He went on to a successful NFL career and then transitioned into a broadcasting career for the next 20 years. He left ESPN in 2011 to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Texas. He lost in the Republican primary in a race eventually won by Ted Cruz.
During one of the primary debates last year, the candidates were asked whether they support benefits for same-sex couples in civil unions that would be similar to those afforded traditionally married couples. In addition to stating he believed engaging in a homosexual lifestyle was a choice, he firmly opposed offering special benefits to gay couples and said their decisions would result in consequences.
"They are going to have to answer to the Lord for their actions," James, a devout Christian, told WND.
In August of this year, James was sought out and hired by Fox Sports Southwest to do post-game commentary for an hour each Saturday night. A day after his first appearance, he received a call informing him his employment had been terminated.
A subsequent Dallas Morning News report on the firing quoted an unnamed Fox Sports source as saying, "We just asked ourselves how Craig's statements would play in our human resources department. He couldn't say those things here."
"Fox Sports did fire me, and they did issue a statement to the Dallas Morning News that said that my comments and my biblical belief on the definition of marriage would not fly in their HR department," said James, who says even though the "comments" referenced by Fox Sports did not specifically refer to his stand on marriage, it's clear his marriage comments were at issue.
"It has to be. When I gave that answer, that was 15 months before I took this job. Clearly I'm being punished for that and that's just something that's not right. That's why I'm taking the time to make sure people understand the seriousness of this matter. This isn't about me, Craig James. This is about an American who was fired from a major corporation, one that we've really come to trust, the irony of this thing it being in the Fox family. (I was) fired because I have a biblical belief and I have that right in this country," he said.
In a subsequent statement issued several days later, Fox Sports moved away from its original rationale.
"At Fox Sports we respect all points of view, and despite reports to the contrary, the decision to no longer use Craig James in our college football coverage was simply because he was not a good fit for Fox Sports," the statement said. "Mr. James, while both experienced and knowledgeable, is a polarizing figure in the college sports community. Regrettably, the decision to use him was not properly vetted, and as a result he will no longer provide commentary on Fox Sports Southwest's college football coverage."
James said that explanation is rendered toothless by the first statement and the way Fox Sports enthusiastically announced his addition to their team.
"After the storm hit and they've now since tried to cover this up and rewrite history, they're saying I'm polarizing. That doesn't hold water because the Friday before I went on the air, Fox issued a national press release that was very complimentary, flattering of me and my talents and said I would be an asset to their coverage. It's a classic case of, 'Let's cloud and distort what really happened here to take away from the heat that's going to come our way,'" said James.
James stands behind the comments on marriage that he stated in last year's debate and said the state of Texas clearly agrees with him.
"We have a law here in Texas," he said. "A few years ago, we voted on it, where the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman and it was nearly 75-76 percent who support that belief, so it's not like I have some unique feeling or belief on what marriage is in this country.
"I also said during that debate and on that issue that this is a choice. We all have choices to make in life. The choices that I choose to do, I will be judged for those by God. That's my belief. That's based on the Lord that I worship. Everyone, all of us, will be judged on Judgment Day according to their choices and things that they've done in their life. That's not my business, not to judge, because the Bible tells me, 'Judge not, lest ye be judged,'" said James, quoting Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1.
"I think the blowback on (his comments) have come because we're at a fork in the road right now in this country. I really believe the message I'm trying to get out to like-minded believers or for those who enjoy having a faith, regardless of your faith, is to stand up and be heard," he said. "Be bold and be passionate because the other side's being bold and passionate about their positions in life."
In his suit, James is seeking to be reinstated as part of the Fox Sports Southwest team. He admits returning now is highly unlikely and would be rather awkward, but said he's ready to honor the contract that he signed.
"The reason I would go back is because it would be the right thing to do," he said. "I agreed to do a job for Fox Sports, and I was prepared to do it and I am prepared to do it. We are looking for Fox to own up to what they've done, admit they made a mistake and that you can't punish someone in this country for their religious beliefs. So put me back on the air and let's move on," he said.
James is represented in this religious discrimination case by Liberty Institute. Attorney Justin Butterfield told WND the case is in the early stages. The legal team is gathering evidence and will soon determine what claims to file.
"What we're doing at this stage is we're just seeking depositions from Fox Sports personnel we believe to have been involved in firing Craig James to find out exactly what claims we need to bring," said Butterfield, who explained that he cannot estimate the burden of proof necessary to win until they determine exactly how the case will proceed. He did say that this sort of religious discrimination is on the rise in America.
"We definitely do see more and more religious persecution in the United States," Butterfield said. "At Liberty Institute, we created a document called 'The Survey of Religious Hostility in America.' It is a catalog of all the instances of religious hostility, people who are persecuted, fired, imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. We have seen just a drastic increase in this type of persecution in the United States."
James insists the battle for religious freedom is more important than what this public fight might mean for his future job prospects. Nonetheless, he said he is concerned that he will be branded in a negative light because of all this.
"Unfortunately, Fox and their actions, their careless and reckless behavior in how they handled my exit, my firing, has really put a burden on me. If you talk about polarizing, now I've got people who have painted me in a position of being anti-gay and being a judgmental person. I'm not that, and my life and its history has proven that out through my actions," said James, who notes he never had an issue with a teammate or media colleague because of differing beliefs.
"I don't know if I can go get another job," he said. "It's going to be difficult, but I have a secondary purpose for that. My initial goal here is to get out and make sure folks understand what happened to me, that we all rally together so it doesn't happen to them. This is like a slippery slope. If we were to brush it under the rug, it becomes an issue that some people might forget, but then all of a sudden you get a collection of these things and the slope is so slippery that that slope becomes policy and a change in the law and the the way things are handled here in this country. We can't allow that to happen."
Despite being embroiled in a very visible legal fight and cultural battle, James said his Christian faith is sustaining him well.
"My faith is awesome right now and I have great peace," he said. "I know that peace is what comes from the Lord. So I'm going to keep on speaking out about this. Where it takes me we do not know, but I'm not going away and Fox isn't going to get away with this."