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ESPN baseball analyst and former NY Mets GM Steve Phillips was recently fired by the network after the NY Post ran a story exposing him for an extramarital affair with a 22-year old production manager and coworker named Brooke Hundley. Apparently things got ugly for Phillips after he tried to break it off and Hundley all but boiled his daughter’s rabbit. Anyway, prior to the Post story, Deadspin, a widely read sports blog, had apparently approached ESPN with questions about the affair, but was told there was nothing to the rumors. That obviously wasn’t the case, and when the Post ran what should have been Deadspin’s story, the blog decided to exact some revenge on the “worldwide leader in sports” by posting a series of entries under the tagline, “ESPN Horndog Dossier.” These posts told the stories of several other ESPN employees who allegedly engaged in intra-network sexual relationships. One such relationship even led to a divorce for one ESPN personality. As you might imagine, the network was none-too-pleased with Deadspin’s decision to air its dirty laundry, and eventually released a statement calling Deadspin’s “rumor mongering” despicable.
This is all very juicy and interesting, but what’s the legal issue? Well this isn’t the first time Deadspin has been in the middle of a firestorm over the sexually inappropriate actions of an ESPN employee. Back in 2007, Deadspin posted a series of entries about ESPN NFL analyst Sean Salisbury, claiming that he took pictures of inappropriate parts of his body on his cell phone, then showed those pictures to female coworkers at the network. Salisbury didn’t like it very much, and just recently filed a defamation suit against Gawker Media (owner of Deadspin). The blog may have opened itself up to more litigation of the sort in the aftermath of the Steve Phillips situation. But defamation claims are tough to prove. First of all, Salisbury or anyone else would have to show that what Deadspin wrote was untrue. Then there’s the question of whether the alleged victims are public or private figures. If ESPN personalities are public figures, then they’ll have to show “actual malice” on the part of Deadspin. Clay Travis, a writer at the popular sports blog Fanhouse (and also a graduate of VULS), wrote an interesting analysis of these legal questions.
I’m no defamation expert, but I doubt the folks at Deadspin just made this stuff up, and I bet the lawyers at Gawker feel pretty good about defending the Salisbury suit and any others that may come their way. But still, these stories revealed some embarrassing details about real peoples’ lives, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them decide to lawyer up. So while stories like this may temporarily send Deadspin’s site visits through the roof, the backlash may send their its bills in the same direction.
– Mark Donnell
Tagged with: advertising • Brooke Hundley • career • celebrities • Clay Travis • contracts • courts • criminal law • Deadspin • defamation • entertainment • ESPN • film/television • internet • JETLaw • journalism • lawsuits • Mets • NY Post • privacy • Sean Salisbury • sports • Steve Phillips • technology • telecommunications
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