The NBA all star-break marked a reprieve from a tumultuous first-half of the season for the New York Knicks. During the offseason, then-recently acquired point guard Derrick Rose mistakenly described the squad as a “super team,” then spent the majority of preseason defending his name in a sexual assault lawsuit. After a promising start to the season, the team’s found itself trapped in a downward spiral, having gone 7 – 17 since the beginning of the new year, and lately, ownership has begun leaving significant, yet subtle, hints that it’s time for Carmelo Anthony to see his way out of the Big Apple. However, nothing trumps the Knicks’ latest predicament, which may be more costly than anything its faced on the court.
How Did We Get Here?
Everything came to a head on February 8, when owner James Dolan booted arch nemesis, and famed former Knick, Charles Oakley, out of Madison Square Garden:
In defense of his ejection – which led to Oakley being charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault, as well as criminal trespassing – the New York Knicks PR team published the following tweet:
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) February 9, 2017
Additionally, in an interview with ESPN, Dolan made the following statements:
To me, Charles has got a problem. I’ve said this before, we said it before. I said that at one time he’s his own worst problem. He has a problem. People need to sort of understand that. He has a problem with anger, he’s both physically and verbally abusive. He may have a problem with alcohol, we don’t know. But those behaviors, being physically and verbally abusive, those are personality problems.
Responding to assertions that he has anger issues and is struggling with alcohol, Oakley claimed MSG security asked him to leave at Dolan’s request; this led to the team issuing the following statement:
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) February 9, 2017
The Knicks essentially doubled down on Dolan’s claims, and for a man who spends his time helping former opponents currently struggling with alcohol addiction, it makes sense why Oakley wouldn’t let Dolan’s claims go without consequence. Despite meeting with Dolan in the presence of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and friend Michael Jordan in hopes of coming to a mutual resolution, Oakley left the gathering stating it might be “three, four, five years” before he returns to the Garden. Furthermore, Oakley asked the Knicks to publicly apologize for Dolan implying he has a drinking problem; as of this date, no such apology has been issued.
What is Oakley’s Plan?
Assuming the Knicks never get around to delivering that public apology, some may think Oakley’s best bet for closure is letting the entire issue die down. However, that doesn’t seem to be an option. In an interview with ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” Oakley professed:
I don’t want this to spin it like everything is OK. This man called me an alcoholic. I have four or five business deals on the table and I can’t go through with them now because I’ve been called an alcoholic. Everybody thinks this is over. This is far from over.
Moreover, Oakley’s attorney Alex Spiro had this to say:
On James Dolan's claim that Oakley has anger/drinking issues, Oakley's attorney, Alex Spiro tells ESPN, "I'll deal with it in court."
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) February 11, 2017
Though it appears Oakley is willing to let the issue lie for the time-being, all signs appear to point to Oakley moving forward with a lawsuit against Dolan and the New York Knicks.
If he files a lawsuit, Oakley strongest legal claim against Dolan is likely for defamation, based upon Dolan’s implied assertion that Oakley is a struggling alcoholic. In order to succeed on this claim, Oakley would have to prove Dolan’s statements: (1) are false, specifically by establishing he’s not alcoholic; (2) were published to a third party; (3) made with the applicable level of fault; and (4) are defamatory per se or caused him some type of special harm.
Element (2) and (4) shouldn’t be hard to prove. Dolan’s statements became a matter of public attention the minute he finished summarizing from his “Preparation” binder. Furthermore, a statement is considered defamatory per se (i.e. as a matter of law) if it tends to injure another person in his trade or business by accusing the person of (1) fraud, (2) some other form of misconduct, or (3) general unfitness, incapacity, or inability to perform his duties. Falsely claiming that a person is a struggling alcoholic, which claim results in the person’s loss of business opportunities, likely falls under per se characterization.
Regarding element (3), as a recognized public figure, Oakley has a higher standard and would have to show that Dolan’s statements were made with malicious intent; essentially, that Dolan knew they were false but made them anyway. Alternatively, Oakley could show that Dolan acted with reckless disregard in making his claims, regardless of whether he knew they were true. As is the case with many defamation lawsuits involving public figures, this high standard may be difficult for Oakley to meet.
Truth is an absolute defense to defamation. If Dolan is able to prove Oakley is actually an alcoholic, then he will not be found liable for his statements. Additionally, based on the structure of his statements, Dolan could also claim his statements were his personal opinion, as a “statement of pure opinion” is also a defense to defamation. To do so, Dolan would have to show his statements were based on facts unknown to the general public, which Dolan’s assertions appear to imply. However, if his statements were based on unstated facts – i.e. drawn from thin air – then it’s a considered a “mixed opinion,” and if the publicly unknown facts are found to be false, it’s considered a “defamatory opinion,” both of which are actionable offenses.
Whether Dolan’s statements constitute fact or opinion will be a matter for the Court to decide, with the main inquiry being whether a reasonable listener would believe Dolan was attempting to make or imply that Oakley is in fact an alcoholic, and courts have established specific factors in order to make this determination. Whether or not Oakley has personality and/or anger problems may also be in play, but are likely to be found not actionable as a matter of pure opinion.
Will Oakley Move Forward?
Oakley has a higher burden to prove than the ordinary defamation plaintiff, which makes defamation claims brought by individual of Oakley’s stature generally difficult cases to prove. As a public figure, Oakley has the ability to dispute Dolan’s allegations in the court of public opinion, which he has already done. Furthermore, Oakley’s wife has already stated that he is not an alcoholic. However, because it appears Oakley has already been damaged, and it doesn’t seem him and the Knicks will be coming to a resolution any time soon, legal justice may be the only route left available for him to feel he’s fully cleared his name.