Fair Game

by

Cottrell v. NCAA (Alabama)
(Former Assistant Football Coach Sues NCAA and an Independent Scout for Defamation [among other things]; No Liability for NCAA; New Trial Granted to Scout Following Verdict in Favor of Recruiting Coordinator)

Former assistant football coaches at a state university had been charged with recruiting violations. After the charges, the coaches brought a lawsuit against the NCAA and an independent recruiting scout, alleging defamation, false-light invasion of privacy, conspiracy and negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all of the coaches’ claims except for the defamation claim asserted against the scout by the coach who served as recruiting coordinator. A jury awarded a verdict in favor of the recruiting coordinator. However, the Circuit Court then granted the scout’s motion for a new trial. Appeals were filed.

The Alabama Supreme Court eventually ruled as follows:

(1) The assistant coaches were limited-purpose public figures, for purposes of their defamation claims asserted against the NCAA for false statements made by the NCAA in its penalty-summary report;

(2) The assistant coach who served as recruiting coordinator was a private person in regard to his defamation claim against the independent recruiting scout;

(3) The recruiting coach was note required to establish, for purposes of his defamation claim against the scout, that the scout’s statements regarding stolen money and videotapes were made with actual malice;

(4) The scout’s statement that the recruiting coach had abandoned his family was not slander per se;

(5) The NCAA did not act with actual malice when it published false statements regarding action taken against the coaches;

(6) The coaches did not present evidence that the NCAA or the scout had conspired to leak information to the media regarding the investigation; and

(7) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by granting the scout’s motion for a new trial.

The lower court ruling was affirmed in part and reversed in part. The case was remanded for the new trial proceedings.

NOTE: It is interesting to note how the court treated the coaches as a limited public figure as to the NCAA, but found the recruiting coordinator to be a private figure as to the individual defendant, resulting in different standards of proof on the same type of defamation claim.

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