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Report: Ex-Cardinals coach Steve Wilks says he was given burner phone to talk to suspended GM; berated by owner

Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks watches his team during the first half of a game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 18, 2018, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks watches his team during the first half of a game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 18, 2018, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

Former Arizona Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough filed an arbitration claim against owner Michael Bidwill to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in April that detailed allegations of harassment, racist treatment of employees and cheating.

On Friday, Steve Wilks, who served as head coach of the Cardinals during the 2018 season, gave a testimony that supported McDonough's allegations.

The 54-year-old is now the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. He spoke in the deposition from California, according to a transcript obtained by ESPN.

In the testimony, he reportedly claimed that he was mistreated by Bidwell and pressured into breaking league rules while witnessing racist mistreatment of other employees.

Burner phone details emerge

Former Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was issued a five-game suspension from the league in 2018 for "extreme" driving under the influence during the Cardinals training camp.

In his April complaint, McDonough claimed that Bidwill forced him and Wilks to communicate with the general manager through burner phones to circumvent the NFL’s disciplinary ruling for “no communication.”

Wilks reportedly reiterated that allegation Friday, claiming that Bidwill and other team executives communicated with Keim throughout his suspension, including while the Cardinals negotiated a three-year, $39 million contract extension with running back David Johnson.

"It was a directive from Keim as well as Bidwill," Wilks reportedly said in the deposition. "They both knew."

Wilks reportedly said former Cardinals vice president of football administration Mike Disner gave him the phone sometime between July 18 and July 20. Wilks, Disner, Keim, McDonough and vice president of football operations and facilities Matt Caracciolo all allegedly received them. Disner allegedly showed Wilks that his phone had been preloaded with "everybody's initials" and numbers.

Wilks reportedly claimed to have only one text exchange with Keim on the burner, in which he responded to a question about progress at practice.

Wilks reportedly said his identity as a Black man contributed to his unease about the scheme. This led him to ask McDonough, who is white, to intervene on his behalf.

"With me being a first-year head coach, I felt uncomfortable from the beginning that I worked this hard to get to this plateau and this opportunity, and then I was presented with this situation with being unethical," Wilks reportedly said in his testimony.

McDonough claimed in the April filing that he expressed his and Wilks' hesitance to break the rules, which resulted in McDonough being yelled and cursed at before being written up for "insubordination" by Bidwill.

Wilks reportedly said he overheard a "heated conversation" between McDonough and Bidwill shortly after McDonough said he would speak out about the scheme.

"I don't know exactly what was said," Wilks reportedly said. "I was walking off the practice field, might have been 15, 20 yards away. And I just heard Michael [Bidwill] berating [McDonough], so I stopped and looked." He said McDonough did not yell at Bidwill. Bidwill, however, "was definitely irate."

Cardinals' external public relations adviser Jim McCarthy addressed McDonough's claims in an extensive statement in April and claimed that another executive was to blame for the burner phone scheme, adding that Bidwill took "swift action" to stop the prohibited communication.

Wilks also refuted this claim Friday. "No one retrieved the burner phones until Keim came back [from his suspension], so it wasn't swift,” he reportedly said.

Arizona finished 3-13 in the 2018 season, and Bidwill fired Wilks. McDonough worked for the Cardinals from 2014 to 2019. He alleged that potential opportunities for his NFL career's advancement disappeared after he refused to go along with Bidwill's cheating.

Disner left the team in 2019 and is currently the chief operating officer of the Detroit Lions. Keim left the Cardinals in 2022 due to his health.

Allegations of mistreatment, racism

Bidwill sits on the NFL's Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and Social Justice Working Group. McDonough has accused the owner of reprimanding him after he introduced three Black players to him during a tryout. "Don't ever do that again,” he allegedly told McDonough.

Wilks reportedly said he witnessed the interaction but “didn't know exactly what it was pertaining to."

He reportedly claims that Bidwill berated him multiple times, with one of those instances allegedly occurring in front of Wilks' 9-year-old son. He was driving home after a game and called Bidwill.

"As soon as he picked up, it was just cuss words and how embarrassed he was about the game and can't really, you know, bring friends or take anybody in the box," Wilks reportedly said, adding that his son later asked him, "Daddy, why is that guy talking to you like that?"

Wilks also reportedly claimed that a Black scout for the team told him that he had been berated by Bidwill for parking in the owner's spot, an allegation McDonough also made in his arbitration complaint.