The Uphill Legal Battle for Defamation Claims in Professional Sports

Guest Post by Rex Sheild

Professional athletes and coaches are consistently in the limelight, whether they wish to be or not. Sure, some professional athletes and coaches prefer to be at the center of attention, for branding purposes if nothing else. Others, however, would rather maintain a more private life. Regardless of the particular professional athlete or coach preference, they will still be succumbed to defamatory remarks from all types of individuals across a wide range of mediums. As such, in my latest for Sports Law Blonde, I will dissect defamation law in the realm of sports and provide previous and recent case law.

Generally speaking, defamation is defined as a false statement of fact directed toward another party that causes injury to such party’s reputation or image. To that end, though, defamation law varies from state to state. Nevertheless, the standard to determine whether the statement constitutes defamation is according to the subjective, reasonable person/reader, not how the plaintiff feels about the statement.

There are two main subsets of defamation, slander (the spoken word(s)) and libel (the written word(s)). For slander, the plaintiff is required to plead and prove special damages. For libel, the plaintiff must also plead and prove special damages unless the defamatory statement falls under the following four per se categories:

  • The allegation that the plaintiff committed a crime;
  • The allegation that tend to injure the plaintiff in his or her trade, business, or profession;
  • The allegation that the plaintiff has contracted a loathsome disease; and
  • The allegation that imputes unchastity to a woman.

Private individuals that are the subject of a defamatory statement have to prove the that the speaker of such statement was merely negligent. To the contrary, public figures, which undoubtedly include professional athletes and coaches, must prove that the speaker of the defamatory statement(s) acted with actual malice. In short, actual malice is defined as a reckless disregard for the truth. More specifically, New York Times v. Sullivan, the case with the strongest precedent related to the actual malice standard, defined actual malice as a statement that was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”  376 U.S. 254, 280 (1964).

A majority of, if not all, professional athletes and coaches are considered public figures, but courts may classify them differently. Put another way, they may be an all-purpose public figure, meaning that they “occupy positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes.” Gertz v. Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1976). Alternatively, they may be a limited purpose public figure, or those individuals that “have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” Gertz, 418 U.S. at 351.  

Finally, several defenses to defamation exist. The most notable one is that the speaker's alleged defamatory statement was, in fact, truthful. Other defenses include, but are not limited to, the alleged defamatory statement being a statement of opinion, or a subjective assessment; retraction of the alleged defamatory statement; and qualified privilege (i.e. self-defense statements or fair criticisms), but only if actual malice is not proven.

So with all of the background taken care of, let’s take a non-exhaustive look at previous and recent case law.

Chuy v. Philadelphia Eagles Football Club (1979)

In 1969, Don Chuy signed a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, after playing with the Los Angeles Rams for six seasons. During his first season with the Eagles, Chuy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, which eventually required hospitalization. During his hospitalization, doctor(s) discovered that he had a blood clot in his lung. As a result, Chuy decided to retire but still wanted the team to pay him the money that was left on his three-year contract. Chuy underwent a physical and other testing in March of 1970, which “concluded that Chuy suffered from an abnormal cell condition, presumably stress polycythemia, which may have predisposed him to the formation of dangerous blood clots.” Thereafter, the team’s general manager reported this news to a local sports columnist. The columnist quoted the Eagles’ then-team physician, Dr. James Nixon, as follows: "One of the consequences of Polycythemia Vera … is that the blood cells get in each other's way. It's a definite threat to form embolisms, or emboli."

To the contrary, Chuy’s own personal physician, Dr. John W. Perry, acknowledged to Chuy that he was not suffering from polycythemia vera. Notwithstanding, Chuy brought suit against the Eagles, alleging defamation, among other claims. The district court entered judgment against Chuy on the defamation claim. In turn, he filed a motion for a new trial on such claim but the district court denied that as well. He then appealed to the 11th Circuit.

Chuy argued that Nixon’s diagnosis involved a loathsome disease in order to bypass the need to plead and prove special damages. However, this was rejected by the court because it relied on case law that narrowly defined a loathsome disease, which entailed a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and leprosy. Additionally, the court did not find that Nixon’s statements about Chuy’s diagnosis caused harm to Chuy’s reputation because a medical diagnosis of a public figure is met with “sympathy rather than scorn” by the public. In other words, the public did not think less of Chuy simply due to his medical conditions. Therefore, the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.  

Latrell Sprewell v. NYP Holdings, Inc. (2003)

Latrell Sprewell, who some of you may know for choking his former head coach P.J. Carlisemo and also for creating DaDa Spinner shoeline, played for a handful of NBA teams during his 14-year career, including the New York Knicks. During his time in New York, Sprewell sued the the New York Post and its sportswriter, Marc Berman, for libel, stemming from four articles published in October 2002.

In essence, the Post outlined the details surrounding an incident on Sprewell’s yacht that led to Sprewell fracturing his fifth metacarpal. According to eyewitness accounts cited, Sprewell swung and missed at a guest on the yacht and ended up striking a wall with his fist. No police report was ever filed. Additionally, in one of the articles the Post acknowledged Sprewell’s two-week delay in notifying the Knicks of such injury; the Knicks fined Sprewell $250,000 as a result and banned him from the team for an indefinite period of time. As such, Sprewell alleged that the articles insinuated “‘that Mr. Sprewell committed the crime of assault and/or battery’ and … ‘tend[ed] to injure Mr. Sprewell in his trade, business or profession by implying that Mr. Sprewell deliberately concealed an injury, thus violating his employment contract with the Knicks.’”

Accordingly, the court ruled that the statements constituted libel per se because they may be as read as imputing a crime, specifically attempted assault. Additionally, it ruled that the Post’s statements regarding Sprewell’s delay in reporting the injury to the Knicks injured Sprewell in his profession because professional athletes like Sprewell are expected to abide by team-specific rules and conduct; those statements starkly alleged that Sprewell did not fulfill those responsibilities.

Vilma v. Goodell (2013)

Since Jaime is a Tulane Law graduate, I realize that the following case may be near and dear to Jaime’s sports fandom heart and soul, as it involved BountyGate and the New Orleans Saints. In 2012, after the league spent roughly two years investigating whether the Saints promoted and facilitated a “bounty” program (i.e. deliberately trying to injure opposing players), which it was found that the team did, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed out suspensions to four players - defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (eight games); defensive end Will Smith (four games); Scott Fujita (three games); and Jonathan Vilma (the entire 2016 season). However, over the course of the appeals none of the players ended up serving their full suspension.

Nevertheless, Vilma filed suit against Goodell, alleging eleven claims of defamation against the commissioner, ten of which dealt with defamation. More specifically, Vilma argued that six statements by Goodell over the course of two months, starting with the league’s March 2nd press release on the alleged “bounty” program and ending with the league’s May 2nd press release that specified the aforementioned suspensions.

Ultimately, the court dismissed Vilma’s lawsuit under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Additionally, the court held that Vilma’s defamation claims were preempted under Section 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act because “[a] defamation claim cannot survive a motion to dismiss when it arises out of an arbitration involving discipline.”

 Zimmerman et al. v. Al Jazeera America, LLC, et al. (2017)

This case arose from the Al Jazeera "scandal" in 2015. Al Jazeera, a now defunct news organization, produced a 49-minute documentary titled "The Dark Side," which essentially outlined the black market for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) for elite professional athletes. As far as the storytelling is concerned, the documentary involved three main individuals: Charlie Sly, an individual that notoriously supplied the PEDs to professional athletes, or at least bragged about doing so; Liam Collins, who met undercover with Sly on numerous occasions; and Deborah Davies, a journalist who covered the investigation that was featured in the documentary.  

Of course, the documentary implicated a handful of professional athletes, including Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Both were specifically accused of taking Delta 2, a hormone supplement, which they received from Sly. In addition to posting the documentary on YouTube, which was done on Saturday, December 26, Al Jazeera posted an article on its website that described the documentary and included a hyperlink to the documentary. The article also referenced a statement by Howard and Zimmerman’s lawyer, William Burck, that Burck made to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Shortly thereafter, Davies participated in an on-camera interview acknowledged that, prior to the document’s public premiere, Sly recanted the statements that he made in the documentary. In fact, Sly recanted his statements on tape, saying “The statements on any recordings or communications that Al Jazeera intends to air are absolutely false and incorrect. … Under no circumstances should any of those statements, communications, or recordings be aired.”

As such, on January 20, 2016 Howard and Zimmerman filed a two-count complaint, including one count of defamation against the news organization, Davies, and Collins. In sum, Howard and Zimmerman pointed to the fact that Sly recanted his statements and that Al Jazeera had direct knowledge of this. Al Jazeera and Davises argued that they merely reported the messages that Sly conveyed throughout the documentary and that the documentary acknowledged Sly as the pure messenger. However, the court rejected the latter argument “because a reasonable viewer could certainly have understood the documentary as a whole to be an endorsement of Sly's claims.” Altogether, the court held that Howard and Zimmerman’s complaint sufficiently stated a claim for defamation against Al Jazeera and Davises. To the contrary, it held that the complaint did not sufficiently state a claim for defamation against Collins because because he did not publish or knowingly participate in the publishing of the defamatory statements.


Turner v. Wells, Jr., Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP (2018)

You all may remember the bullying “scandal” involving the Miami Dolphins, which gain national prominence in 2013. Then-Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin was on the receiving end of many harassing, derogatory statements and comments promulgated by his fellow teammates, most notably Richie Incognito who is now with the Buffalo Bills, to the point that he eventually left the team abruptly during the middle of the 2013 season. Shortly thereafter, the NFL opened an investigation into the matter, hiring the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. Ted Wells, one of the firm’s partners and the same individual that was highly involved with Ray Rice investigation, also participated.

In February 2014, Wells and his firm published a 144-page report, concluding that the bullying that Martin endured was directly related to his decision to leave the team. The report also implicated then-offensive line coach Jim Turner, who was interviewed in November and December 2013 as part of the investigation. The references to Turner included, but were not limited to, Turner giving Martin a male blow-up doll as part of a Christmas gift, as opposed to the female blow-up dolls that he gave the other linemen; Turner texting Martin and urging him to make a public statement to defend then-Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito; and Turner failing to stop the bullying directed at Martin. Five days after the report was published, the Dolphins relieved Turner of his coaching duties.

Roughly nineteen months later, in September 2015 Turner filed a lawsuit in a Florida federal district court, alleging three Florida law claims of defamation. The district court granted the law firm’s motion to dismiss on the basis of 12(b)(6). Turner appealed to the 11th Circuit.

Altogether, most of the statements and findings from the report that Turner claimed to be false and defamatory were deemed as opinions by the court. As a result, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case. The most notable aspect of this case was the court’s clear-cut acknowledgement that Turner was a public figure, specifically a limited purpose public figure. Turner argued that he was not a limited purpose public figure, thus negating his need to prove that the law firm acted with actual malice, “because he did not attempt to influence this public controversy.” However, the court wrote that Turner became a public figure the moment that he took over as the Dolphins offensive line coach.

While my article strictly deals with professional athletes and coaches, I thought it would be beneficial to dissect a case that dealt with a former high school and collegiate athlete. Mind you, a lower court in West Virginia initially ruled that he was a public figure.

Wilson v. Daily Gazette Co. (2003)

Quincy Wilson, who ultimately attended West Virginia University (WVU) on a football scholarship and played in the NFL for four seasons, also starred as a basketball player for Weir High School in West Virginia. In 1999, he led his team to a basketball state championship, and as a form of celebration following the victory, allegedly “exposed” himself in public. The Daily Gazette, a newspaper in West Virginia, wrote an article about Wilson’s act, referencing a rumor that opposing fans saw Wilson expose himself.

After the circuit court held that Wilson was a public figure and did not show that the Daily Gazette acted with actual malice, granting summary judgment in favor of the newspaper, Wilson appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court. In sum, the Daily Gazette argued that Wilson was an all-purpose public figure because, among other reasons, he was a prominent athlete that received news coverage when he signed his national letter of intent to play at WVU and whose dad played in the NFL. Yet, the court found that Wilson’s accomplishments and athletic prominence only held weight in a “limited circle of notoriety,” that being high school athletics. Thus, it found that Wilson was not an all-purpose public figure.

In turn, the Daily Gazette argued that all non-professional athletes like Wilson should be deemed as limited purpose public figures essentially because they voluntarily participate in public sporting events. To the contrary, the court wholly rejected that argument because, relying on the limited public figure definition cited in Gertz, “[t]he mere fact of playing on a high school football team, or little league baseball team, or a college golf team, is not in and of itself a controversy.” Altogether, the court reversed the circuit court’s decision that granted summary judgment to Gazette.