Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner currently faces a one-year suspension under the substance-abuse policy. As he awaits a ruling on whether the suspension will stand, he has in his pocket some potentially strong legal claims.
Among the possible legal theories is a suit for defamation, based on the erroneous report that he faces a suspension for violating the league’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs.
Though quickly corrected, the report from the network the league owns stains Browner’s reputation by inaccurately painting him as a cheater. The substance-abuse policy covers substances that don’t enhance performance; there’s no associated suggestion that the player was trying to cheat the rules.
Since the network is owned by the entity that knows the truth, it would be easy to satisfy the “actual malice” standard for public figures in defamation cases because the NFL, which published the report, actually knew that the report was false.
Three days later, the NFL continues to disseminate false information. Earlier this morning, I fired up the NFL Mobile application on my Samsung Galaxy S4 for the first time since the weekend, and I received an alert that Browner faces a PED suspension.
While the actual damage to Browner’s reputation would be diminished by the reality that he was suspended in 2012 for violating the PED policy, the circumstances raise the specter of punitive damages: Monday was the first day of Browner’s appeal hearing; late Monday afternoon, NFL Network made a blatantly false report about the policy Browner allegedly violated.
It could be argued that the false report flows at least in part from a sense of retaliation against Browner for fighting the suspension. Of course, whether someone intended to spread false information about Browner depends on the identity of the source. And it could be difficult for a reporter employed by the league to conceal the name of the person from the league who provided the information, especially if there’s a chance that someone from the league decided to use the league-owned media conglomerate to spread false information about a player who dared to exercise his right to appeal the effort to put him out of the NFL for at least a year.
In addition to the report being false, the report breached Browner’s confidentiality rights. If that was a factor in the deal that resulted in a significantly reduced suspension for Broncos linebacker Von Miller, the breach of confidentiality coupled with the false information being disseminated by the group known as “NFL Media” should give Browner plenty of leverage to work out a deal that cuts if not eliminates entirely his proposed suspension.