Just a few days ago, Mike Leach filed a defamation suit against ESPN and Spaeth Communications. Leach, football coach at Texas Tech, was fired in December 2009 for allegedly abusing one of his players. The player, wide receiver Adam James, was suffering from a concussion when Leach ordered him to stand in a locked electrical closet for hours with no lights on. After ESPN reported the story, Leach was fired for cause by Texas Tech.
James’s father, Craig, is a college football analyst for ESPN.
Leach first sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination, a claim that he lost. With the statute of limitations for libel and slander quickly approaching, Leach turned his attention to ESPN and Spaeth, a public relations firm accused of helping the James family tarnish Leach’s reputation. The suit claims that ESPN knowingly made statements both on air and in print that it knew to be false and damaging. Some of those statements include (via New York Times):
- Leach punishing Adam James for sustaining a concussion.
- Leach ordering James to be locked in an electrical closet.
- Leach putting James at risk of additional injury.
- Leach requiring James to stand in a dark room for hours.
ESPN did not respond to questions about the suit as they had not yet reviewed it. Spaeth Communications quickly dismissed the suit, with a spokeswoman stating that “This lawsuit is the predictable strategy of a man who is desperate to avoid accountability for his own behavior.”
There are two possible defenses that ESPN and Spaeth can raise in response to this suit: truth and privilege. Truth is an absolute defense. Assuming ESPN and Spaeth can prove that what they said was true, the case will be dismissed easily. Truth will be hard to prove here, as it’s really only Leach’s word against James’s word. What will likely be argued is that ESPN and Spaeth have conditional privilege. If they can show that the statements were not made with actual malice, the case will be dismissed. Actual malice sis confirmed if ESPN had knowledge that the story was false or if it acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
So the question the court is going to want answered is whether or not ESPN did its job and verified their story before broadcasting it. News organizations typically do their work, but sometimes things slip through (just ask Dan Rather). Libel cases in general tend to come out for the defendant as libel and slander are hard to prove. I expect this to be the case for ESPN.
I found an interesting article on the steep decline of libel and slander cases in today’s media but couldn’t find a place to work it into the story. Check it out here if you’re interested.