The defamation lawsuit by retired three-time All-Star Philadelphia Phillies first-baseman Ryan Howard and All-Star Washington Nationals first-baseman Ryan Zimmerman against Al Jazeera over the controversial documentary The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers survived a motion to dismiss Friday. The 49-minute undercover exposé aired in late December 2015 and featured surreptitious recordings of Charles Sly, a former pharmacy intern at The Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indianapolis, who claimed he supplied Howard and Zimmerman with a performance-enhancing drug (PED) banned by Major League Baseball. Approximately three weeks before the film aired, Sly publicly recanted his statements and declared on videotape “there is no truth to any statement of mine that Al Jazeera plans to air.”
Howard and Zimmerman filed suit in January 2016 alleging defamation and false light against Al Jazeera and reporters Deborah Davies and Liam Collins. All three defendants moved to dismiss the action in April 2016 claiming the film lacked a direct accusation that Zimmerman and Howard used PEDs. The defendants also attempted to shift the blame to Sly and cited the documentary’s disclaimer at the end alerting viewers to Sly’s retraction.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case as to Collins, the undercover agent who was not involved with the documentary’s production, but kept the defamation claims against Al Jazeera and Davies in play. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson found Sly’s statements clearly referenced the athletes and a reasonable viewer could have interpreted the documentary to be an endorsement of Sly’s claims.
Although Howard and Zimmerman are public figures who will be required to show Al Jazeera and Davies acted with actual malice in broadcasting the report (i.e., acting with knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth), the Court concluded the players could make this showing using evidence that Sly publicly recanted his statements weeks before the documentary aired. Plus, plaintiffs’ counsel informed Al Jazeera before the broadcast that the documentary’s PED allegations had no merit. Nonetheless, Al Jazeera published the film and could face millions of dollars in damages if it elected not to reasonably investigate the veracity of Sly’s scandalous assertions.
Also featured in the film is NFL icon and two-time Super Bowl Champion Peyton Manning, Green Bay Packers linebackers Mike Neal, Julius Peppers, and Clay Mathews, and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. None has filed a lawsuit against Al Jazeera to date, but Manning told ABC News the film is a “freaking joke.”