A lawsuit from Callahan would be difficult, messy


As the allegations of sabotage in Super Bowl XXXVII grew, it was only a matter of time before former Raiders coach Bill Callahan addressed them.  And address them he did, via a late-night statement suggesting that he has gotten himself lawyered up.

By uttering the “D” word (not the one that ends in “bag”), Callahan and/or whoever wrote the statement is making it clear to Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, and the persons who represent their legal interests that litigation is at least being contemplated.

But while a defamation lawsuit against one or both former players would become great theater, it would entail many challenges — and cause significant collateral damage for Callahan, and possibly others.

1.  The statute of limitations against Brown possibly has expired. 

When pressed last night by Erik Kuselias of Pro Football Talk on the assertion of sabotage a decade after the game, Brown said that he has been talking about his suspicions on national television and Dallas radio for years.  Which means that, if Brown is sued, his first defense will be that Callahan waited too long to sue.

In most jurisdictions, the statute of limitations is one year.  It has been more than one year since Brown made his statements in a public setting.

I haven’t research the issue completely (which as I learned early in my legal career is standard lawyer code for “I don’t really know what I’m talking about”), so it’s entirely possible that, in whichever jurisdiction Callahan would sue, each utterance of the false statement sets the clock back to zero.

2.  The difference between fact and opinion.

If a lawsuit is filed (and if it’s determined to be within the statute of limitations), the biggest challenge will be drawing a line between fact and opinion.  False statements of fact can lead to litigation; uninformed or incorrect opinions based on actual facts are protected.

The factual assertion from Brown is that Callahan drastically changed the offensive game plan two days before Super Bowl XXXVII.  Brown’s opinion is that Callahan was trying to sabotage the Raiders.

It’s a fine line, but Brown arguably has stayed on the right side of it.  Even last night, when he was as candid as he’s ever been about his beliefs, Brown said, “I’m not necessarily saying he [changed the game plan] for that reason, but it happened.”

Rice may not have been as careful.  “For some reason — and I don’t know why — Bill Callahan did not like me,” Rice said Tuesday on ESPN. “In a way, maybe because he didn’t like the Raiders, he decided, ‘Maybe we should sabotage this a little bit and let Jon Gruden go out and win this one.’”

3.  Callahan is a public figure.

For ordinary citizens, any untrue statement of fact can provide the basis for a defamation lawsuit.  For public figures, a higher standard applies.

Callahan will have to show that Brown and Rice knew the allegations were false, or that they acted with reckless disregard to the truth or falsity of their comments.  That necessarily makes any case of defamation against a public figure like Callahan harder to prove.

In this case, it means that Brown and Rice would give detailed testimony on what they experienced that caused them to believe what they believed.  They’ll surely say that something different happened before that game than anything they’d experienced in all their years of playing football, which caused them to believe that Callahan was up to something.

Against a private citizen, that may not matter.  Against a public figure, that explanation could result in the case being tossed before it ever would be presented to a jury.

4.  Callahan would expose himself to significant criticism.

If the case goes forward, many former Raiders players and coaches will be questioned under oath.  And while they will have different perceptions and beliefs about the reasons for the decisions made and not made by Callahan, the questioning will rehash everything that happened in preparation for the game, including whether the game plan was changed and why the audibles and other terminology installed by Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden during his time as the Raiders coach wasn’t.

In other words, and as Kuselias framed the issue last night, Callahan was either corrupt or incompetent.  By proving he wasn’t corrupt, Callahan could end up shining a bright light on the notion that he is incompetent.

5.  Plenty of big names will be involved.

If it goes to trial, this lawsuit ultimately could top, from a media standpoint, every lawsuit ever filed or threatened by the late Al Davis.  The parade in and out of the courtroom would be even more impressive than the  Seinfeld finale, with guys like Rich Gannon and Tyrone Wheatley and Lincoln Kennedy and Bill Romanowski and Rod Woodson and Charles Woodson and Charlie Garner and maybe even Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski making the walk to the witness stand, along with members of the 2002 Raiders coaching staff, including current NFL head coaches Marc Trestman and Jim Harbaugh.

Jon Gruden would likely make an appearance at some point, possibly along with members of the Buccaneers defense (which had guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch), who would be able to shed light on whether or not Gruden seemed to know what was going to happen, and possibly why he knew that.

Current and former NFL head coaches like Rod Marinelli, Raheem Morris, and Mike Tomlin — all members of the 2002 Buccaneers coaching staff — also could be involved, along with former Bucs (and current Cowboys) defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

At one point during the game, Lynch told Tomlin, “Mike, every play they’ve run, we ran in practice.  It’s unreal.”

Said Tomlin in response, “I know.”

The biggest name of all could be the guy who won’t be able to directly participate.  If the game plan was indeed changed by Callahan, we continue to believe the most plausible explanation is that Callahan was ordered to do so by owner Al Davis.  It would be fitting if the outcome of the lawsuit turns on whether a jury believes that Callahan was simply following the marching orders given to him by one of the most litigious owners in sports history.

6.  What should happen next.

Though it would be fascinating to cover the litigation and any trial that would happen, the smart move in the short term would be for Brown and Rice to issue statements explaining clearly that they are merely stating their opinions, based on the facts that they experienced.

And then they should never discuss the situation publicly again.

While on one hand the issuance of statements would suggest that they fear litigation, on the other hand it would be a prudent way of both putting a bow on a story that has quickly taken on a life of its own and managing potential liability risks.

Either way, the ball is not back in Brown’s and Rice’s court.

37 responses to “A lawsuit from Callahan would be difficult, messy

  1. bottom line, if the players felt he threw the game i don’t think he would have been back the following year. you think al would have let him come back? i think al is the one who made him change the game plan last minute.

  2. The only ones that will benefit from this is, of course, the lawyers.

    If it comes down to litigation, you are talking about hundreds of thousand of dollars in legal fees

  3. Wow…poor editorial decision…waste of a story based on the ridiculous speculation of a Callahan lawsuit based on a single statement written by the pr person at the cowboys, for Callahan, hoping to squash the embarrassing story

    You ‘ll note here forward Callahan won’t be commenting on this per Jerry Jones…..move on…nothing here.

  4. Tim Brown went to Notre Dame, this story has taken over the Manti drama. Coincidence or was he just trying to give a fellow Domer a break from the spotlight?

  5. Callahan has been defamed by at least two of his former players, clearly butt-hurt ten years after they got their tails whipped by the Buccaneers. What recourse does Callahan have for this defamation? If he lets it go, many will call his silence a tacit admission of guilt. If he says anything, it becomes, “he said, they said”. If he sues, it becomes a circus.

    I don’t like sympathizing with Callahan, given his clear lack of head coaching acumen and given for whom he now works, but I’m on his side on this one. IMO the Raiduhs didn’t pursue the wrong strategy that day; they simply got their butts whipped by the best team in the league that year, a great team that could have continued its greatness had its coach been more concerned with coaching and less with his own celebrity.

  6. The only reason the Raiders got into the super bowl was Rich Gannon. Rich called Callahan “A good coach” and “a good man”. Translation: not qualified to coach at the NFL level. Nothing more slanderous than that.

  7. Steeler Nation (in all of its glory): We have sixty rings.

    You: No, I’m pretty sure your tremendously successful franchise only has six rings.

    Steeler Nation (in all of its glory): Wrong you are. See, every ring that we have conquered carries ten times the magnitude of another franchise’s.

    You: That’s a ridiculous and a rather arrogant claim.

    Steeler Nation (in all of its glory): Viewing history from afar, the Steelers are the most decorated professional football franchise since the birth of the Super Bowl era. We (Steeler Nation in all of its glory) have materialized ourselves into something beyond mortal standards; thus, the scope of our greatness multiplies to compensate this superiority.

    You: I see now! There is no denying the Steelers’ immensity, and I’m starting to question why they aren’t getting much respect lately despite significant adversity from the league “string-pullers”.

    Steeler Nation (in all of its glory): This is why we (Steeler Nation in all of its glory) have decided to leave this trivial league following the 2013-2014 season (and a final Lombardi capture – despite the league’s efforts to stop us) to begin our own magnificent association, free of corruption.

    You: Great! I look forward to this marvelous football revolution. All hail the Steelers’ leadership in the face of football’s destruction from Goodell, agents, and lawyers.

    Steeler Nation (in all of its glory): Good to see that you follow. You may leave now.

  8. What an outstanding legal analysis. Very important article here. 6 bullet points full of relevant facts.

  9. Ridiculous blathering. Terrible legal points – amateurish, classroom analysis.

    Pathetic self serving effort

  10. Paragraph 5 is just amazing. Do we really think that most everything said in paragraph 5 will ever come to fruition?? I would absolutely love for this fantasy land lawsuit to bring all of my Buccaneer favorites into the courtroom. In my wildest dreams I could not create a fantasy land that entertaining.

  11. Well then, it’s my opinion that Brown and Rice are two butt-slammin’ buddies (not that there’s anything wrong with that) whose hoochies still hurt from the whipping they took ten years ago! Not defamation, just an opinion about two public figures, right?

  12. It’s simple, really; Al Davis never said a word about the Super Bowl loss being an act of sabotage or otherwise and if I recall correctly, Davis tried to file a lawsuit based on the current Buccaneer logo being too similar to the Raiders logo, so why wouldn’t he of all people address this during his lifetime?

    The better team won, it’s that easy. Tampa Bay was the worst possible matchup for Oakland in the Super Bowl, it’s a stone cold fact. The Bucs had the Raiders former coach, who was just traded from Oakland, and the personnel of Oakland, from the skill players to the head coach played right into the Buccaneers hands. The players played the game and were outperformed. Simeon Rice, the real MVP of that Super Bowl absolutely abused the Raiders offensive line, regardless of the difference in weight/size. This story is turning into a joke, and the only people who think otherwise are deluded and bitter Raiders fans. You guys lost. Period. Indisputable fact. You weren’t as prepared as the Bucs and it cost you. There was no fix and really, when you read Brown’s quotes, he is almost pressed into saying the fix was in.

    I never thought I’d say this, but at this point, I’m longing for some actual Harbaugh brother stories to move beyond a ten year old game in which Oakland was dominated on both sides of the ball. Just whine, baby.

  13. Weak attempt to appear competent.
    Go back to school, or wherever you learned the pseudo-legalistic jargon.

  14. I’m not sure Rice actually went over the line with his comments. I suspect, if you got it to a courtroom, he would certainly clarify that he was stating his opinion on why what happened happened, even if the sentence itself was structured in a way usually used to present facts.

  15. Bottom Line:

    It was a weird game where one team knew everything that was coming. Even a mic’ed up Lynch walked off the field and stated something to the effect about how unreal the game was as they knew everything that was coming at them.

    I don’t really cite that to Gruden knowing the playbook. I mean Mooch and Holmgren knew each other plays and their games weren’t lopsided as that Raiders vs Bucs Superbowl.

    The football world deserved a much better Super Bowl than that farce. I’m not saying sabatoge occurred, but in terms of level of competition it was worse than a WWE professional wrestling match. That Superbowl was a joke.

  16. Watching John Lynch tell Mike Tomlin, “everything they are running, we practiced, and Tomlin saying yeah”, shows Callahan did throw the game.

    Spare me on this notion that he was incompetent and that the former coach of the Raiders now coaches the Bucs. Well if that was the case then why didn’t the Raiders defense know what the Bucs were doing.

    The two receivers said the game plan changed. Charlie Garner concurred. Rich Gannon said the game plan only changed because the Bucs were up 20 to 3 at the half, but he said the Bucs knew all the Raiders terminology, and the O line couldn’t make calls and they couldn’t run the no huddle. Now you hear John Lynch.

    All of this can’t be incompetence, this man threw the game and that is a shame.

  17. “JackAcid says: Jan 23, 2013 12:32 PM
    Callahan would be stupid to attempt legal action. Huge waste of everyone’s time.”

    Wrong. The allegations made by Tim Brown are a defamation of character. Waste of time or not, he can’t let this volatile character assassination go unheard.

  18. No chance Callahan would win a lawsuit against Brown or Rice for the aforementioned reasons.

    And Callahan did not “throw” the game – Al Davis would have fired him on the spot (As it was Callahan was fired a year later).

  19. At one point during the game, Lynch told Tomlin, “Mike, every play they’ve run, we ran in practice. It’s unreal.”

    That my friends was the problem. When your former head coach is the QB of your opponents scout team, you are in trouble.

  20. steelfan1 says:
    Jan 23, 2013 12:05 PM
    Watching John Lynch tell Mike Tomlin, “everything they are running, we practiced, and Tomlin saying yeah”, shows Callahan did throw the game.

    Spare me on this notion that he was incompetent and that the former coach of the Raiders now coaches the Bucs. Well if that was the case then why didn’t the Raiders defense know what the Bucs were doing.


    because the Bucs CHANGED all of there calls and audibles

  21. In something like this, just the threat of a defamation lawsuit would be enough to get Tim Brown to stand down. Whether Callahan would win or not is irrelevant, the real question is does Tim Brown want to spend money on a lawyer if he doesn’t have to?

  22. I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it statements are considered libelous only if the person making the statement KNOWS them to be untrue and makes them with malicious intent.

    The intent may be malicious, but you would have to go inside the heads of the players involved to prove that they know what they are saying is false. That includes Rice’s statement(s).

    I think everyone would love to see this go to court except for Callahan, the Cowboys and the league office. If Callahan sues he’ll probably never work in the NFL again because it would be an invitation for lawyers to impugn the league generally, possibly bringing up other questionable games and federal investigations over the years.

    We might even get to hear about those two Larry Brown interceptions again…

  23. Gruden knew and he said he knew. He dropped back like Gannon in practice for two weeks and threw the ball. They knew all plays and coverage schemes on D.

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