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Vince McMahon fired XFL commissioner Oliver Luck in part for signing ex-Gator Antonio Callaway: court claim

The WWE chairman claims Luck didn’t tell him about Callaway’s history of off-the-field troubles.

TAMPA — When Vince McMahon hired Oliver Luck to lead the reboot of the XFL, he added a well-respected football man with more than four decades in the game to give his second try at professional football the legitimacy it needed.

After the XFL’s first season failed — in part to the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered all professional sports leagues — McMahon’s chaotic dismantling of the league included firing Luck, who then sued McMahon for wrongful termination.

Now, lawyers for McMahon, the WWE magnate who financed the league, say in a claim filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut that he had several justifiable reasons to can his former commissioner — including his signing of troubled former University of Florida receiver Antonio Callaway.

Callaway suffered a knee injury before the season’s first game, and McMahon claims Luck’s handling of the matter cost the league unnecessary financial burden in excess of six figures.

Unlike the first version of the XFL, the league was built to give players opportunities to get to the NFL. But McMahon said he wanted to ensure those chances were given exclusively to players of good character. Background checks were performed on all players, and each signing had to receive McMahon’s personal stamp of approval, according to the claim, a copy of which was acquired by The Tampa Bay Times.

Tampa Bay Vipers wide receiver Antonio Callaway (5) runs through drills during practice at Plant City Stadium in Plant City, Florida on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

At Florida, Callaway was suspended twice — he was accused and later cleared of sexual assault and was punished for his role in the Gators’ credit card fraud scandal — and cited for marijuana possession. After he tested positive for marijuana at the NFL combine, his draft stock tumbled even more.

The Cleveland Browns cut him in November following a drug suspension and violation of team rules for failing to show up to team meetings on time.

According to the claim, McMahon wouldn’t approve players with troubled pasts that Luck presented him, but Luck never told him about Callaway’s previous issues before the league signed him to a $125,000 bonus. He was claimed by the Vipers and joined their roster.

“At the same time Luck advised McMahon of Callaway’s signing, he requested that McMahon revisit a prior decision not to sign another player who had been banned from his college campus due to a sexual assault allegation, which McMahon refused to reconsider,” the claim states. “On January 13, 2020, Luck advised McMahon that one of the XFL’s teams had claimed Callaway but did not disclose any of Callaway’s many instances of known misconduct. On January 16, 2020, Callaway signed his contract to join the Tampa Bay Vipers. Luck countersigned the contract on January 23, 2020.”

Related: Ex-Florida Gator Antonio Callaway feared he'd never play pro football again

When the Vipers added Callaway, coach Marc Trestman said the team had done all the necessary background to feel confident Callaway deserved another opportunity, though all the vetting of Callaway was done at the league level. He was slated to not only play receiver, but also be a return man on special teams.

“I just felt like he deserved an opportunity based on his situation,” Trestman said. “... He knows this is his only chance to play football again, is to do it here.”

According to the claim, McMahon ordered Luck to terminate Callaway once he found out about his history. But Callaway remained a member of the Vipers and suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury before the first game of the season.

“Because of Luck’s failure to promptly terminate Callaway, (the league) had to honor his contract, pay for the costs of surgery on Callaway’s knee, and may incur significant worker’s compensation payments,” the claim states. “The cost to the XFL of this episode of gross negligence was in excess of six figures.”

Related: Former Gator Antonio Callaway's Vipers season ends before it starts

The Callaway situation is the most mentioned but only one of several instances in which Luck — who is suing the league for $23.8 million — showed “gross negligence” of his position, according to the claim.

Luck also used league-issued technology, including his cell phone, for personal and non-league use, the claim states. Nor did he perform his duties once the league postponed its season in mid-March in the wake of the pandemic.

“Instead of providing much needed leadership to address this new challenge, Luck decided to leave Connecticut and disengage from the XFL’s operations,” the claim states. “... Put simply, at the very moment when his leadership as CEO was needed most, Luck did not devote substantially all of his business time to the XFL, as required by his contract.”

Luck’s attorney, Paul Dobrowski, said McMahon’s allegations are without merit and that Luck has detailed all the work he did for the XFL during the time in question.

“No one at the time said, ‘Oliver you’re not following XFL policy.' Or sent him a notice letter, which would have been required under his contract,” he said.

The XFL appeared to have some staying power. The league had a multi-year TV deal with ESPN and Fox, and fans seemed to like some of its rule changes and innovative broadcast access.

The pandemic ended the season just five games in, the end of the XFL was ugly. The league promised to continue play in 2021, then suddenly suspended operations, terminating nearly all XFL employees — players, coaches and staff members. Shortly afterward, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

McMahon fired Luck on April 9.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

Staff writer Matt Baker and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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