Defamation Sports Law

Background On Defamation Law, Courtesy Of Mason Rudolph And Myles Garrett

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Defamation actions can be the most emotionally driven court cases, where one party charges another for communicating (either orally or through written means) a false statement of fact that results in reputational harm. These cases can also be some of the toughest for plaintiffs to prevail on after paying their filing fees, and at times extremely lucrative when the evidence plays in the plaintiffs’ favor. Here, we look at what could occur should a high profile sports battle be waged in a court of law, with the focus on an alleged defamatory statement.

The Incident That Led To Myles Garrett’s Suspension.

On November 14, 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers were visiting the Cleveland Browns. The game ended with the Browns defeating the Steelers by a score of 21-7. While few remember the game itself, a particular moment from the matchup continues to serve as an issue for discussion.

At the end of the game, Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett threw down Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, Rudolph attempted to take off Garrett’s helmet and Garrett proceeded to rip of Rudolph’s helmet, hitting Rudolph on the head with his own helmet.

Garrett was suspended indefinitely for his action and the suspension was upheld on appeal. On February 12, the indefinite nature of the suspension was ended and Garrett was reinstated by the NFL.

The Alleged Statement Made By Rudolph, Which Has Become Bigger Than The Helmet Swinging.

During Garrett’s appeal, which failed to shed his indefinite suspension, Garrett alleged that Rudolph uttered a racial slur before he swung Rudolph’s own helmet, striking Rudolph on the head. Garrett double-downed on his position through a tweet on his official Twitter account.

“I know what I heard,” tweeted Garrett. “Whether my opponent’s comment was born out of frustration or ignorance, I cannot say. But his actions do not excuse my lack of restraint at the moment, and I truly regret the impact this has had on the league, the Browns and our devoted fans.”

That tweet was published on November 21, 2019. Some questioned the veracity of Garrett’s comments, including Rudolph’s agent, who happens to be a lawyer.

“The malicious use of this wild and unfounded allegation is an assault on Mason’s integrity which is far worse than the physical assault witnessed on Thursday,” tweeted Rudolph’s agent Timothy M. Younger in response to Garrett’s comments. “This is reckless and shameful. We will have no further comment.”

It appeared that Younger carefully parsed his words in issuing the commentary over Twitter, including terms that are often used in a defamation pleading that concerns statements made about a public figure. Yet, months passed by without further word on the situation and it appeared that the issue surrounding whether or not Rudolph uttered a racial slur was left in the past.

Why The Question Of Whether Mason Rudolph Uttered A Racial Slur Has Once Again Become An Issue.

Garrett’s indefinite suspension ended on February 12 and he was deemed to be immediately eligible to resume work in the NFL. Two days later, ESPN’s Outside The Lines program aired an interview between Garrett and ESPN Senior Writer Mina Kimes, where Garrett again lodged blame at Rudolph for allegedly using a racial slur prior to Garrett removing Rudolph’s helmet from his body.

“He called me a stupid n-word,” said Garrett in the interview.

Rudolph responded by saying that Garrett’s commentary was “1000% False,” that it was a “Bold-Faced Lie” and that Garrett’s action of blaming Rudolph for making a statement he never made was a “disgusting and reckless attempt to assassinate my character.”

Younger, Rudolph’s agent, added that Garrett “made the ill advised choice of publishing the belated and false accusation that Mr. Rudolph uttered a racial slur on the night in question” and that “Mr. Garrett maliciously uses this false allegation to coax sympathy, hoping to be excused for what clearly is inexcusable behavior.”

I emphasized certain portions of Younger’s statement, because it appears that he has once again very carefully determined the language he wanted to use in his reply. The aforesaid highlighted portions of his statement are some key elements of what would be required should a defamation lawsuit be filed against Garrett. This time, months after Garrett initially claimed that Rudolph uttered a racial slur, Younger hinted more clearly at the potential that a defamation lawsuit will be filed.

“Although Mr. Rudolph had hoped to move forward, it is Mr. Garrett who has decided to utter this defamatory statement– in California,” wrote Younger. “He is now exposed to legal liability.”

The final portion of the statement makes it clear that legal action is being seriously contemplated by Rudolph and his counsel. Additionally, the inclusion of California in the statement appears to highlight that, if a lawsuit is filed, Younger is of the position that jurisdiction may be most appropriate in California, which is where Younger and his company, Younger & Associates, is based.

What Is Rudolph’s Burden To Bring A Defamation Claim In California?

If Rudolph desires to bring a defamation action against Garrett, and that remains a big if, then he will first need to satisfy basic pleading requirements. In California, the required elements to be plead by a public figure in a defamation action include that a statement of fact was published, the statement was false, the statement was not in any way privileged, the statement has a natural tendency to injure or cause special damage and that Garrett acted with actual malice.

The actual malice standard requires that Rudolph plead that Garrett either knew that the statement he made (“He called me a stupid n-word”) was false or that Garrett recklessly disregarded the falsity of the statement.

Could Rudolph Also Bring A Defamation Per Se Claim Against Garrett?

Rudolph could potentially add a defamation per se cause of action in a Complaint which, if it survives motion practice, would allow Rudolph to proceed with a claim without showing special damages. Rudolph would plead that the statement is so clearly defamatory that he does not need to provide any extrinsic evidence to explain the defamatory nature of the statement.

Typically, the easiest defamation per se claim is brought when someone alleges that another person is guilty of a crime. Here, Rudolph could potentially seek to include a cause of action for defamation per se by claiming that it falls under the category of statements that impute Rudolph acted in a manner incompatible with his business/trade/profession.

If Rudolph could convince a court that there is a possibility of defamation per se, then he would be precluded from the need to prove harm, as reputational damage is presumed.

What Could Garrett Say In Defense Should Rudolph Bring A Defamation Action?

The most common defense to a defamation action is truth, which serves as an absolute defense. If Garrett finds anyone who heard Rudolph utter the racial slur and is willing to testify to same under oath, then that could provide Garrett all he needs to prevail should a case by brought by Rudolph. What is required in this instance is substantial truth. Perhaps Rudolph did not call Garrett “stupid.” That is not the crux of this issue, which is truly whether or not Rudolph uttered the n-word in speaking to Garrett.

A lack of evidence could also serve to be very favorable for Garrett. Rudolph would likely stand on the fact that he cannot prove a negative (i.e. that he did not utter something that he is alleged to have stated). However, as the plaintiff, who happens to be a public figure, Rudolph would have the burden of proof in showing that Garrett has lied about Rudolph uttering a racial slur. Without evidence in the form of testimony by anyone who could have been close enough to hear anything stated in the heat of the moment with noises all around (including crowd noise) and/or any microphones recording communication on the field, this could be an insurmountable task for Rudolph.

Finally, there is no disputing that, as a pro athlete, and particularly a quarterback in the NFL, Rudolph is a public figure for the purposes of defamation law. As such, actual malice is a required element for a successful defamation claim (here, it is considered a slander case since the alleged defamatory act occurred through oral communication). It was the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that first provided a true standard for actual malice, which is that the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with recknless disregard of whether it was false or not. This could be the toughest element for Rudolph to prove, if a case ended up going all the way to a jury trial. It is very possible that Garrett believed he heard Rudolph utter the statement. He appears to be very adamant that it was said. How will Rudolph ever prove that Garrett knew that Rudolph did not call him an n-word or had recknless disregard to its truthfulness? Is there a smoking gun out there that shows Garrett has crafted this narrative to save face?

Garrett is locked into his story that the slur was uttered as he and Rudolph were going down to the field in the middle of the play and that it neither occurred after the play nor during the scrum. If he diverts from that story, then it could go to impeaching his credibility and potentially lead a finder of fact to believe there was actual malice.

Ultimately, if a defamation case is initiated by Rudolph, then all of the above will be fleshed out. But unless that occurs, no one will ever know the truth and, even if a case is brought, the permissible defenses in a defamation case may still preclude anyone from really knowing the truth as to what happened on November 14, 2019.