What Coach Dawn Staley says about her lawsuit against Missouri AD
Just over a week ago, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley filed a lawsuit against Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk claiming defamation for his comments on Jan. 30 alleging that Staley promoted an “unhealthy” atmosphere at Colonial Life Arena that led to Mizzou players reportedly being spit on and called racial slurs during a game between the two programs on Jan. 28.
Within hours of the suit being filed, the SEC announced it was fining Sterk $25,000 after several weeks of no disciplinary action on either side.
But when it comes to the lawsuit itself and its chances of success, the odds of a quick resolution in Staley’s favor are significant, according to three legal experts.
None of the experts interviewed by The State has any personal involvement in the case, and all three stressed that their opinions are based only on what has been publicly reported. Staley’s lawyer, Butch Bowers, and a Missouri spokesperson both declined to comment for this story.
Still, given what’s known now, all three said the case will be an uphill, though not unwinnable, battle for Staley.
The first significant hurdle facing Staley is one that applies in all cases of claimed defamation — the burden of “actual malice.”
Specifically, when a plaintiff who is a public figure or a public official claims defamation, she must prove not only that the defamatory statements are false, but that the defendant knew the statements were false or showed a reckless disregard for the truth and should have known they were false.
“It’s doubly confusing when you take the normal definition of malice, and that’s hatred or ill will. That’s what someone thinks of when they say the word malice. Well it’s actually a different standard of care,” J. Lewis Cromer, a Columbia attorney who represented another USC women’s basketball coach, Pam Parsons, in a defamation case, said.
“That malice is defined by conscious knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. You not only have to prove the guy didn’t like you that said it — because most of the time when people say things like that, they don’t like you — but you’ve got to prove that person knew it was a lie when they said it, or said it in such a reckless manner that they should have discovered it was a lie before they said it.”
That extra standard, above and beyond what is necessary in most civil cases or what is required for non-public officials or figures, is a First Amendment protection that has been established in the U.S. legal system since 1964, attorney Jay Bender said.
“It’s intended for a libel plaintiff who’s a public official or a public figure to have a difficult path to recovery. Not an impossible path, but a difficult one,” he said.
In Staley’s case, South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner has said the department conducted an investigation into the claims of spitting and racial epithets and found no evidence of the alleged misconduct, though Tanner has also said in multiple interviews that he is not accusing anyone at Missouri of lying.
The second part of Sterk’s comments, that Staley promoted an unhealthy environment in which the alleged behavior took place, is what’s at the center of Staley’s lawsuit. In the initial complaint, Staley’s lawyer cited the national attention the comments drew and public statements from members of the women’s basketball community in support of Staley, arguing that she would never encourage such an atmosphere.
But because the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, Staley will have to specifically prove she didn’t do anything to promote the alleged atmosphere. The simplest way to do that would likely be to show that it never happened, but short of that, Cromer said, Staley and her lawyers will face the difficult task of trying to “prove a negative.”
“That the condition they accused Coach Staley of was so false that anyone would know that it was false that knew Coach Staley. And that it was said with no basis whatsoever,” Cromer said of what Staley’s lawyers would have to show.
Carmen Maye, an assistant professor at USC with a law degree and expertise in media law, suggested that Sterk might try to argue that his statement was subjective enough to qualify as an opinion, which would exempt him from defamation. However, she also said that line of argument was far from bulletproof.
“It’s not a slam dunk, but I think it was worthwhile filing on her part,” Maye said. “The overall context and the implication of the statements, they tend to convey a defamatory meaning, but in my view, she’s got some hurdles, to mix our sports metaphors. ... The odds are stacked against her.”
Bender added that Sterk might also try to challenge the jurisdiction of the suit, which was filed in Richland County, because he was in Missouri when he made his comments in a radio interview. Because Staley is only seeking up to $75,000 in damages, the case could originally be filed on the state level, not the federal one, but Bender believes Sterk could fight to change the venue.
“If you have to choose which Columbia you’re going to sue the Missouri athletic director, you’re going to choose Columbia, South Carolina, not Columbia, Missouri,” if you’re Staley, Bender said.
Bender added that with mandated Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), a form of mediation required in Richland County before a case can go to trial, combined with possible appeals after an initial decision, the lawsuit could last for years if neither side backs down.
“Based on his comments, it seems to me that the Missouri athletic director is a jerk,” Bender said. “Should the fact that he’s a jerk cause Dawn to file a lawsuit? That’s up to her, but had she asked me, I might’ve said win another national championship, and no one will worry about her reputation.”
However, Maye suggested that at the very least, Staley’s suit would help her defend her reputation in the court of public opinion, especially outside of South Carolina.
“I certainly understand why she would have been inclined to pursue legal action, for no other reason than some sort of a public message,” Maye said.