In a possible effort to avoid being regarded as a reckless, Vontaze Burfict-type NFL villain, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett has accused Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph of provoking a helmet-to-unhelmeted-head attack by uttering a racial slur. Rudolph’s agent/lawyer has suggested that Garrett may now be sued for defamation of character.
So here’s the question: Will Rudolph do it?
“I would expect him to do what was appropriate in terms of protecting his name and reputation,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during his Monday appearance on ESPN, via Ed Bouchette of TheAthletic.com. “And I would do so aggressively, and I don’t blame him.”
The biggest challenge for Rudolph, if suit is filed, continues to be the higher standard that applies to defamation cases brought by public figures. He’ll need to prove that Garrett acted with “actual malice,” which means that Garrett said what he said knowing it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false. And if Rudolph rolls the dice but fails to meet the enhanced standard, a jury verdict entered in Garrett’s favor under the “actual malice” test easily (but incorrectly) could be regarded by the public as a finding that Rudolph used a racial slur.
Thus, no matter how compelling the discovery process and the trial would be, it makes sense for Rudolph to let it go — especially since Garrett’s defense lawyers would undoubtedly delve into every nook and cranny of Rudolph’s life in an effort to develop any evidence that could be used to show that Rudolph’s pre-defamation reputation wasn’t as pristine as he’ll try to characterize it as.
There’s actually precedent for defamation litigation involving the Steelers. As noted by Bouchette, former Raiders defensive back George Atkinson sued Steelers coach Chuck Noll for defamation in 1977 for saying that Atkinson is part of the NFL’s “criminal element.” Noll won at trial.
Along the way, Noll admitted while testifying that some of his own players could be included in that same category. Which, amazingly, prompted Steelers cornerback Mel Blount to sue his own coach for defamation. Blount wisely dropped the lawsuit, presumably in light of the broad privilege that applies to statement made within the context of litigation. And Blount continued to play for the man he sued through 1983.
It’s unclear how much longer Rudolph will be playing for the Steelers. And the stain that Garrett has placed on Rudolph’s reputation could follow him to his next NFL city — possibly preventing him from having a next NFL city. So maybe he needs to fully develop the evidence and hope it shows he didn’t use a slur, regardless of whether Rudolph would be able to win at trial.