A former Utah Jazz player is suing United Airlines for $10 million, alleging it racially discriminated against him by refusing to let him sit in an empty aisle with more legroom — but then allowing a white woman to do so instead.
Eric Murdock, 50, a former first-round draft pick for the Jazz, filed the federal lawsuit in Queens, N.Y. He played 50 games for the Jazz in 1991-92 during the Karl Malone and John Stockton era when the Jazz reached the Western Conference finals.
He later played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers.
The lawsuit stems from incidents on a July 13 flight from Las Vegas to Newark, N.J., when Murdock, his son and some other former NBA players were returning from a conference of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.
Murdock’s lawsuit says that as the flight was loading, he and his son asked to sit in an extra-space emergency exit row that appeared to be empty. One flight attendant said they could if no other ticketed passenger arrived there but noted the seats had a premium price.
Murdock said he offered to pay the extra cost but found that was not possible once the plane door closed. Just before takeoff, a ticketed passenger appeared and had a seat in the emergency row.
The lawsuit said the ticketed passenger graciously gave up his seat to 6-foot-1 Murdock. But another flight attendant demanded that Murdock return to his assigned seat, noting that the emergency row required payment of a premium price. She was not swayed that the other passenger had given up the seat.
About a half-hour into the flight, the suit says, a white woman moved into the emergency row — so Murdock did again also. The flight attendant told Murdock to return to his seat, but not the white woman. When he asked why the other woman could remain, he was told that it was none of his business.
A black woman joining Murdock in the lawsuit, Brenda Williams, said that the flight attendant was rude to both of them when she asked why Murdock was being treated poorly — including trying to take her cellphone, thinking that she was recording the encounter.
During later beverage service, the suit says, the flight attendant “in a snide and condescending tone asked plaintiff Murdock if he wanted a beverage or if he was ‘going to boycott.’”
At the end of the flight, the suit says, the pilot told passengers to remain seated because of a security situation. Murdock and Williams were then escorted off the plane and questioned by the Transportation Security Administration, the suit says, but were not arrested nor detained.
The lawsuit says Murdock “suffered personal and professional embarrassment” as other former NBA players on the flight watched.
Erin Benson, spokeswoman for the airline, said, “At United, we proudly hold ourselves to the highest standards of professionalism and have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. We are looking into the allegations, and because we have not yet been served with the lawsuit, we are unable to provide further comment.”