MLB stars Zimmerman, Howard claim defamation, sue Al Jazeera over doping documentary

Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (L) and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard © Stringer
Baseball all-stars Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard have each sued Al Jazeera America, claiming the news network made defamatory statements about them in a recent documentary about doping in professional sports.

In an Al Jazeera documentary that aired on December 27 called ‘The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers’, network reporter Deborah Davies and undercover journalist Liam James Collins claimed that a myriad of high-profile athletes ‒ including Zimmerman, the long-time face of the Washington Nationals, and Howard, a former Rookie of the Year winner for the Philadelphia Phillies ‒ took performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) outlawed by professional sports leagues.

Al Jazeera used Collins, a British hurdler, to “help us to investigate doping in sport... [by] claiming to be an athlete desperate to qualify for the Rio Olympics.” In the program, he spoke to pharmacist Charlie Sly, who said that he provided the professional sports players with PEDs, such as human growth hormone (HGH) and Delta-2, a banned hormone supplement.

In response, Zimmerman and Howard ‒ first basemen for their respective Major League Baseball teams ‒ sued Al Jazeera America, Davies and Collins for libel and false light invasion of privacy for the program’s claims that they had taken Delta-2. When the program originally aired, it said both men had taken HGH, but then issued a correction that they were given Delta-2, the court documents noted.

The suits, both filed by by William Burck of Quinn Emanuel law firm in US District Court in Washington, DC, claim that Al Jazeera “publicly smeared” the two men “with false and unsubstantiated allegations of performance-enhancing drug use, based on uncorroborated accusations” by Sly, which, the court documents say, the pharmacist “unequivocally recanted” before the documentary even aired.

“But for the reference to Mr. Howard’s prowess as a home run hitter,” both baseball players unequivocally and categorically deny ever taking Delta-2, HGH or any other PEDs.

"Today I authorized my attorneys to file suit against Al Jazeera and its reporters," Howard said in a statement. "Their irresponsible reporting forced me to take this action to protect my name and to fight back against the spreading of these lies. I will have no further comment, as the filing itself contains all I need to say."

Sly claimed in ‘The Dark Side’ that he had known Zimmerman for six years, which the Nats player denied as "categorically untrue” in the suit.

“I have always taken pride in my personal conduct,” Zimmerman said in a statement. “While I am not a litigious person, I felt it was necessary to file this suit to restore my reputation and to hold Al Jazeera accountable for its actions. The suit speaks for itself, and I have no plans to discuss this any further.”

To win their cases against the Qatari-owned news network, the men must prove that Al Jazeera had prior knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth, and prove that the network chose to publish the defamatory statements with “actual malice.”

In a video posted on YouTube on December 26 ‒ after Al Jazeera had made the documentary available online, but before it aired on television ‒ Sly admitted he lied to Collins about the allegations.

“To be clear,” Sly said, “I am recanting any such statements, and there is no truth to any statement of mine.”

Zimmerman’s suit also notes that his attorneys sent two separate cease-and-desist orders to Al Jazeera before the program aired. Even before that, though, “[i]n an effort to disabuse Al Jazeera of the error of its ways,” the lawyers had written the network a letter asking it to identify its source, which the company refused to do.

“You have also refused to provide us with any information that might lead us to help you understand how it could be that such a falsehood could have been charged of [our client],” the lawyers wrote, according to the suit. “Consequently, you have disabled us in our ability to demonstrate that your source is either untrustworthy or just plain wrong, and therefore Al Jazeera will be taking the risk that false and shoddy journalism could have been rectified had not its reporting protocol been grossly irresponsible.”

In November 2015, Al Jazeera America suspended its general counsel, David W.Harleston, after it was revealed that he was not licensed to practice law, the court documents note.

Despite the accusations made by Zimmerman and Howard that Al Jazeera knowingly and recklessly published false information about them, the lawsuits are likely less about winning and more about the two men’s reputations.

“This suit isn’t about damages, it’s about PR,” Nathaniel Grow, University of Georgia Associate Professor of Legal Studies, told Forbes.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was named in the documentary as receiving HGH under his wife Ashley’s name from Sly, is waiting to make a decision on whether to file a lawsuit of his own.

"No, I haven't decided that," he told Denver media last Wednesday. "I don't want to deal with that until after the season."

Ari Fleischer, an adviser to Manning, told the Denver Post this Wednesday that Manning's plans have not changed. The Broncos have a first-round bye in the National Football League playoffs, which begin on Saturday.

There are definite drawbacks that could prevent Manning ‒ and others named in ‘The Dark Side’ ‒ from suing, however. While the high-profile athletes likely aren’t worried about the cost of litigation, unsavory details could be revealed during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.

"It can be dangerous to sue because a defendant can probe into actual allegations," Los Angeles-based lawyer Arthur Whang told USA Today Sports last week. "That's because truth is a defense. Al Jazeera could use the litigation to probe the accusations which plaintiffs may not want."

“You often hear a lot of bluster about suing and then they learn what it will cost,” Whang added. “Actual malice is hard to prove."

The Zimmerman and Howard suits are seeking unspecified monetary damages, injunctions requiring Al Jazeera to remove and publish a retraction of all false and defamatory statements about the men, and attorney’s costs and fees.