On Tuesday, Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals and Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies filed separate suits in federal court against Al Jazeera America for libel. These claims stem from the television network’s recent documentary that linked, among others, the two baseball players to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Both suits were filed by the law firm Quinn Emanuel in the District Court of Washington, D.C.
The main source used by Al Jazeera for the documentary was a pharmacy student by the name of Charles Sly. Mr. Sly has since distanced himself from the statements published by Al Jazeera by issuing a full recantation. In a video published a few weeks ago, Mr. Sly stated that he was secretly recorded without his knowledge or consent, and that “there is no truth to any statement of [his] that Al Jazeera plans to air.”
Unfortunately for the two baseball players, it will be difficult for them to win a libel suit even after Mr. Sly’s retraction. Since they are public figures, they will have to prove that the statements by Al Jazeera were made with “actual malice.” Such malice can be proven in two ways: first if it can be demonstrated that Al Jazeera published the report knowing it was false, or second if it can be shown that the report was published with reckless disregard as to its truth. The best evidence for the two athletes so far is that Mr. Sly recanted his statements before the documentary even aired. However, in such cases it is likely that the courts would require even more evidence before finding that the report was published with reckless disregard as to the truth. Even if they were successful on the merits, the two baseball players may also have difficulty proving actual damages of a significant amount.
Another player named in the documentary is future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos. Al Jazeera America has recently clarified that the documentary only reports that Manning’s wife received PEDs from Mr. Sly, not that there was evidence of Manning taking said PEDs. Manning stated that he has considered the possibility of litigation, but so far has not filed any lawsuits. Al Jazeera recently claimed that they had a second source that is “credible, well-placed, [and] knowledgeable” for the report that Manning’s wife received shipments of PEDs, but refused to name said source.
At this stage, it appears Manning has chosen the better route from a PR perspective. The report by Al Jazeera has been met with skepticism by the media and public at large, and many have sided with Manning already after his public denial of the claims. With the lawsuits, however, Zimmerman and Howard have opened themselves up to future media exposure on the issue. Even if they have never taken PEDs, they should recognize that the more articles linking their names to such drugs, the harder it will be to distance themselves from them in the future. If their claims go to trial, they will be subject to increased scrutiny and likely be forced to testify as to their medical histories.
It is entirely possible, though not probable, that Howard and Zimmerman will be successful in their lawsuits and be granted some damages. As athletes and public figures, however, they should always remember to factor in the reputational repercussions when making decisions regarding litigation. Only time will tell whether Manning or the two baseball players have made the better decision.