Do ‘American Idol’ Criminal Background Checks Discriminate Against Minorities?

Nick Fishman

File this one away in the category, “You Can’t Make this $h:t Up”.

The EEOC has cleared the path for 10 former contestants to sue the show’s producers for the discriminatory use of criminal background checks.  The suit alleges that 31 percent of ‘Idol’ semi-finalists who were black males were disqualified for reasons “unrelated to the singing talent” and that in the show’s 10 year run none of the non-black contestants were disqualified.

According to ABC News, “The plaintiffs, all of whom were disqualified from the show over six seasons for reasons other than singing — including criminal history — were recently issued notices of “right to sue” by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, allowing the 429-page lawsuit they filed in July to move forward.”

The 10 plaintiffs include Jaered Andrews (season 2), Corey Clark (season 2), Jacob John Smalley (season 2), Donnie Williams (season 3), Terrell and Derrell Brittenum (season 5), Thomas Daniels (season 6), Akron Watson (season 6), Ju’Not Joyner (season 8)and Chris Golightly (season 9).

Each former contestant is seeking $25 million in damages for “economic injuries, lost business opportunities and/or lost earning potential” following their dismissal from “Idol.”

I find this case extremely interesting for five reasons:

  • Who knew that American Idol was still on TV:)
  • By suggesting that the plaintiffs were disqualified for reasons unrelated to their singing, they are taking an extremely narrow view of what is and what is not job-related.  Sure, these people could carry a tune but if they were going to represent the show as all contestants do, then American Idol should be entitled to deny participation to those who might reflect negatively on the show’s image.  In fact, that’s exactly what the show’s producers argued in their response to the complaint.  They argued that they use background checks to insure that contestants who may become finalists have no legal entanglements that might ‘interfere’ with or ’embarrass’ the show. They also said that their biggest concern with a contestant’s arrest history was not having that person available because of pending legal matters.  I’m thinking that it might be an unreasonable request to ask the producer’s to reschedule a live show if someone has to appear in court.
  • “American Idol” producers argue that these “contestants” are not “employees”.  If they aren’t employees, then it would appear to me that the case really has no merit.  Excuse the expression, but this is definitely not a black and white issue.  Will a court determine that they were employees because they stood to get paid for their participation?
  • And to me, the most compelling argument is that the show did not disqualify 31 black contestants who had criminal records.  This suggests that there was no blanket policy in place to deny participation based on the presence of a criminal record.
  • Four of the twelve winners (33%) are black.  Hello!  If this doesn’t demonstrate fair treatment, I don’t know what will.

I wonder what former ‘Idol’ judge Simon Cowell might say about all this.

Nick Fishman
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Nick Fishman

Nick Fishman is the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, a leading, global employment background screening provider, and serves as the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. He pioneered the creation of EmployeeScreen University, the #1 educational resource on employment background checks for human resources, security and risk management professionals. A recognized industry expert, Nick is a frequent author, presenter and contributor to the news media. Nick is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio and Texas.
Nick Fishman
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  • Kimberly Kline

    This is ludicrous! The biggest thing to me is that contestants are NOT employees. What is the EEOC (Equal EMPLOYMENT…..) doing involved in this at all?

    I will be sharing this article!