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Law

Why Are Defamation Lawsuits By Athletes Growing?

  • Lawsuit fillings by and against public officials on the rise since 2016.
  • Sacramento Kings player Richaun Holmes' most recent example as he is suing Sacramento Bee.
Richaun Holmes sues Sacramento Kings.
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

From Patrick Reed to Brett Favre, current and former pro athletes have sued over 30 media personalities or outlets for defamation over the last 12 months. 

Granted, LIV Golf’s Reed does account for about half of those. But there’s certainly a trend beyond Reed and Favre. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer and, most recently, Sacramento Kings forward Richaun Holmes have all alleged they were defamed. 

The targets are Pat McAfee, Shannon Sharpe, The Athletic, Golf Channel, and The Sacramento Bee.

“Maybe it’s that sports figures kind of have egos that bruise easily, and they were more willing to try their hand in court,” said George Freeman, the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center and a former longtime New York Times attorney. 

Freeman successfully defended The New York Times from a defamation lawsuit brought by Kenny Stabler in 1982 over a story that alleged he had been investigated for ties to known gamblers during his years with the Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers. 

Stabler also sued NBC, which linked Stabler to alleged point shaving. Stabler, who died at age 69 in 2015, dropped his lawsuit against The New York Times and settled with NBC in 1985.

And that’s how defamation cases typically play out. According to the Media Law Resource Center, defamation cases against the news media that reach trial fell 75% between 1980 and 2016, like the decades-long trend in other civil court matters. 

A rising trend

But that hasn’t stopped a rise in defamation cases being filed since 2016. 

“[Former President Donald] Trump is the main culprit, frankly,” Freeman said. “He wants to shut people up and, and get ’em scared so they won’t say bad things about him or things he doesn’t like in general.”

Freeman added cases like last year’s celebrity trial also could be a factor in the increase.  

Actor Johnny Depp sued ex-wife Amber Heard over a column she penned for The Washington Post in 2018. The jury concluded with a verdict in June that Heard committed actual malice — the legal standard needed to prove a defamation case — and awarded Depp $15 million in damages. Heard received $2 million in damages from her countersuit. 

Heard ultimately settled the claims for $1 million in December. 

Brett Favre sues Shannon Sharpe, Pat McAfee, and Mississippi State Auditor Shad White .

Brett Favre Sues Shannon Sharpe, Pat McAfee for Defamation

Favre has been linked to about $8 million in misspent welfare funds.
February 9, 2023

The Washington Post, however, was not a defendant in the case, although a handful of cases have led to verdicts against media personalities, and Fox News’ ongoing case could spell trouble.

  • Former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan won a $140 million judgment against Gawker Media in March 2016. The case centered around the invasion of privacy over Gawker publishing an excerpt of a sex tape, and a jury found the First Amendment didn’t protect Gawker. The lawsuit resulted in Gawker’s declaring bankruptcy, and the two sides settled for $31 million
  • Late last year, InfoWars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was ordered to pay nearly $1.5 billion in two defamation trials filed by families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting that Jones repeatedly said was “staged,” and none of the 26 victims of the 2012 shooting died. 
  • Scheduled to trial next month, Dominion Voting Systems is suing Fox News for defamation related to the network’s promotions of lies related to the 2020 presidential election. Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion in damages. 

NBA player sues newspaper

Holmes became the latest to enter the defamation case fray last week when he filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court against The Sacramento Bee, opinion writer Robin Epley, and Holmes’ ex-wife, Allexis Holmes. 

The lawsuit takes aim at five stories published by the newspaper last year over a custody dispute between Richaun Holmes and his ex-wife. The outlet ran Allexis Holmes’ domestic and child abuse claims in the coverage. 

“Ms. Holmes’ claim of abuse that the Bee Defendants spread far and wide, however, was a terrible lie — and the information and public record available and known to, but apparently ignored by Ms. Epley and the Bee proved as much,” the civil complaint stated. “Ms. Holmes fabricated the claim that [Richaun Holme] had abused her and their son to gain leverage in her custody dispute with [Holmes].”

There’s a direct link between Holmes and Depp’s case. Holmes’s attorney is Camille Vazquez, who was one of the attorneys to represent Depp in his case against Heard last year. 

“We will pursue all available remedies to rebuild from the damage that The Sacramento Bee, Epley, and Ms. Holmes have inflicted on Mr. Holmes. Despite the publicly available court decisions disproving each of these allegations, this narrative will have a lasting impact on Mr. Holmes’ life and career,” Vazquez, a partner at the law firm Brown Rudnick LLP, said in a statement.

Trio leads trend

Bauer sued The Athletic and journalist Holly Knight in one lawsuit. He filed other defamation cases against the woman who accused him of assault and Deadspin. The Deadspin case was dismissed last week,

While one claim against The Athletic — a subsidiary of The New York Times — was dismissed, the lawsuit remains ongoing. The New York Times is appealing a judge’s decision not fully to dismiss the case. 

Reed originally sued Golf Channel, and analyst Brandel Chamblee in a Texas federal court before Reed’s conservative activist attorney Larry Klayman dropped that lawsuit in August. Hours later, he had re-filed the case in Florida federal court — and the defendant list got longer. 

There are currently eight active defendants in that lawsuit, which was dismissed once by the judge. The amended lawsuit remains ongoing. Reed also sued The Associated Press and eight others. 

“These calculated, malicious, false and/or reckless attacks have had a direct effect on Mr. Reed’s, his colleagues and his family’s livelihood, and he has suffered major damages through the loss of not just one but multiple multi-million dollar sponsorship deals and his business endeavors,” Klayman wrote in the lawsuit against The Associated Press in November. 

The fervor over Favre’s alleged links to the Mississippi welfare scandal — which led multiple brands and media companies to pause their relationship with the former Green Bay Packers great — had settled before the Super Bowl. 

But that ended when Favre sued McAfee, Sharpe, and Mississippi state auditor Shad White for defamation on Feb. 9 over comments they made about Favre and the largest misappropriation of funds scandal in Mississippi history. Before suing McAfee and Sharpe, Favre’s attorneys sent letters to them demanding retractions — warnings that went out to others in the sports media world. 

A costly pursuit

Sports law attorney Dan Lust laid out another downside for athletes when it comes to suing over something that appeared in sports media. 

“When you file a lawsuit, now you and I are talking about it,” said Dan Lust, co-host of Conduct Detrimental. “There’s the Streisand Effect. I would have known about this but not for a lawsuit. Now it takes it to a national story.”

Defamation cases aren’t only difficult to win, but they are costly. Firms typically don’t take such cases on contingency. Add in the fact that 30 states have anti-SLAPP laws that lead to the quick dismissal of meritless cases and allow defendants to recoup attorney fees. 

But it beats one way Stabler retaliated against a reporter as Freeman recounted the infamous 1979 incident. 

“Stabler actually planted it in a reporter’s car,” Freeman said, “The guy was thrown in jail before they figured out it was a [setup by Stabler]. That’s pretty nasty stuff.”

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