On December 26, Al-Jazeera America released a documentary detailing extensive allegations of doping in sports.  The documentary focused on secret tapings made by former Olympic hurdler Liam Collins in which he shopped around for performance-enhancing drugs that would allow him to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  As an older athlete passed his prime, Collins was the perfect candidate to obtain sensitive information about the ease with which PEDs can be obtained by high-level athletes.

In a startling turn of events, Collins was able to obtain videotape of a man named Charles Sly who openly talked about providing Human Growth Hormone and the steroid-like substance Delta 2 to high profile athletes including Dustin Keller of the Miami Dolphins, Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, among others.  Sly provided sensitive information about how the drugs were delivered, how they were administered, and how the athletes evaded league-imposed drug testing.

Many of the athletes involved came out with denials of varying degrees following the report.  Peyton Manning appeared on ESPN the following day vehemently denying any wrongdoing, denying that he knew Sly, and stating unequivocally that Sly’s statements were false.  When asked if he planned to sue, Manning said the prospect was likely.

On January 5, Howard and Zimmerman each filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against Al Jazeera America, Liam Collins, and Deborah Davies, the chief reporter involved, alleging claims of Libel and False Light Invasion of Privacy against the defendants.   The plaintiffs professed their innocence while alleging that Al Jazeera published the report despite knowing that Sly himself recanted his statements and claimed he made up the allegations.

The viability of the lawsuit, beyond personal relations induced theatrics, is dubious according to Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst Michael McCann.  As McCann notes, Al Jazeera will likely allege that the statements were in fact true.  Further, as public figures by way of their notable baseball careers, Howard and Zimmerman would have to prove that Al Jazeera had “actual malice” in publishing the report, pursuant to defamation law.  This is an immensely difficult standard to meet, as Al Jazeera will likely argue that they published the reports fully believing, and still maintaining, that its contents were true.  Finally, the statements were not made by Al Jazeera themselves, but rather by Sly, and thus according to McCann, Al Jazeera will likely assert that they were a “news gatherer” in evading liability.  Thus, the lawsuits filed by Howard and Zimmerman appear to be headed for failure.

Manning’s situation, however, bears watching.  As the most high profile athlete against whom the allegations were hurled, his involvement and subsequent denials have been headline news.  Manning himself declared that he planned to sue the news agency.  Failure to do so, in the public’s eye at least, will appear to be a de facto admission of the report’s claims in wake of the lawsuits filed by Howard and Zimmerman.  But, as noted above, Manning’s lawsuit is likely to fall flat.  Further, filing a lawsuit would open Manning up to the possibility of being deposed under oath, and having to admit under the threat of perjury any scintilla of wrongdoing.  Thus, Manning’s decision whether or not to file a lawsuit against Al Jazeera will be interesting.  At the very least, his failure to do so will constitute a judgment against him in the court of public opinion.

Ben Jacobs

 

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