Make-up calls happen all of the time in sports, especially in the NBA. But Bill Spooner, an NBA referee, is not a happy camper that he was called out on it. And now, the next time that I call a ref a total asshole, or more likely, a blind total asshole, I may need to lawyer up. During a Minnesota-Houston game on January 24th, Associated Press journalist Jon Krawczynski tweeted: “Ref Bill Spooner told [Timberwolves coach Kurt] Rambis he’d ‘get it back’ after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks.” And now Spooner has sued over it.
The complaint is interesting to say the least. It seeks $75,000 in damages from the AP and Jon Krawczynski for defamation, and the crux of Spooner’s argument focuses on the Tim Donaghy scandal. The complaint details how Donaghy “scandalized the League, honest NBA Referees, and the viewing public.” It goes on to explain how the Donaghy incident was so “hurtful” to referees and damaged their collective reputation so significantly that “unfounded” criticism such as Krawczynski’s is now defamatory. Spooner argues that the tweet basically accuses him of fixing a game, or cheating, which has irreparably harmed his “professional and business reputation.” He also says that it led to an investigation by the NBA. In addition to the $75,000, Spooner seeks a court order to remove the tweet from Krawczynski’s page. He also asks for two weeks vacation, a happy ending massage, a gumball machine for the refs locker room, three hamsters, and a public apology in the form of a sonnet.
The incident revolves around a foul called on Anthony Tolliver, which infuriated Rambis and the Timberwolves. Spooner told Rambis that he would review the call at half-time; in response, Rambis said something along the lines of: “well, that is great and everything, but I want my two points back.” In the lawsuit, Spooner claims that he did not respond to Rambis, but Krawczynski, who was sitting courtside, obviously says otherwise. Spooner made three foul calls in only 40 seconds. Based on replays, it seems clear that the call on Tolliver was atrocious; the two later calls, however, are much harder to nail, and if anything, seem correct.
I find the whole case super intriguing. It is strange that a referee is suing a writer, which takes the actual game outside the hardwood and into a totally different court. It is even weirder that the lawsuit is over a tweet. You would not think that 140 characters could be so damaging. I find it especially interesting because, until the lawsuit was filed, no one would have ever known about the tweet, and therefore, the alleged defamation. It is almost like Spooner defamed himself by bringing the lawsuit, because it, in effect, spread the “rumor” or misinformation to millions more people than originally would have heard it.
Generally speaking, defamation, which consists of both slander and libel, is a very difficult thing to prove in court. Slander, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is a defamatory statement expressed orally. Libel, on the other hand, is a published defamatory statement that identifies an individual by name. If the defamatory statement is made via broadcast media – such as the radio, television, or internet – it is considered libel, rather than slander, because it has the potential to reach a large audience. Thus, if Krawczynski has committed any civil tort, he has committed libel. To prevail, defamation must be an intentionally false communication that injures another's reputation. It includes statements that bring ridicule, scorn, or contempt to an individual in a substantial part of the community. A statement is considered particularly defamatory, or defamation per se, if it concerns one’s profession, health, chastity, criminality, or moral turpitude. So it is especially bad if you talk shit about someone’s job, spread rumors that they are going to die soon, call them a dirty whorebag, or claim that they are a child molester. Here, the tweet directly related to Spooner’s professional duties as a referee, and relayed information as fact instead of opinion, which is more problematic for Krawczynski from a legal perspective.
So does the suit have any merit? It might. It really depends on if Spooner is considered a public figure or a private citizen, which is a game-changer in defamation law. If Spooner is considered a public figure, he must prove the falsity of Krawczynski’s tweet AND "that the statement was made with 'actual malice' -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Thus, a public figure has a higher burden of proof than a private citizen, who is not required to prove malice, but instead must prove negligence. As a private citizen, Spooner would only have to show that the statement was false, that it was conveyed to at least one other person (i.e., the Twitter universe), and that Krawczynski should have researched or known better. That is really what this case comes down to. As an NBA referee – the most elite position in his particular profession, whereby he executes his duties in front of millions of viewers – Spooner may be considered a public figure; Krawczynski will certainly argue it. At the same time, are refs that well-known or individually important? In his complaint, Spooner goes out of his way to assert that he does not make public statements or give interviews; he is clearly trying to establish that he is a regular guy like the rest of us. In a way, he has a point – how many referees do you know by name? Because this is the first time I have ever heard of Bill Spooner. And now that I know him, public or private figure, I sort of think he is a dick – not because of his alleged make-up call or the tweet, but because of this stupid lawsuit.
Even if Spooner is considered a private citizen, Krawczynski may still be protected under the law. If he can show that the tweet was only a reasonable mistake, he would not be found liable; but this defense would fail if Spooner demonstrates that the tweet was intentionally exaggerated and purposely spread. There is no doubt that the tweet was purposely spread, as it was posted on Twitter; but it would be nearly impossible to show that the tweet was intentionally exaggerated. It seems that Spooner builds a foundation for this argument in the complaint, as he claims that Krawczynski has a past history of irrationally criticizing refs. Still, it is a weak leg to stand on. Even stranger, the entire lawsuit will be rendered moot if Rambis affirms that Spooner DID, in fact, say that he would give him a make-up call. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation and the best-case scenario for Krawczynski.
Whether Krawczynski exaggerated or not, this suit is lame. It has nothing to do with Tim Donaghy and Spooner should be ashamed that he is using that asshat as his victim card. Spooner connected himself to Donaghy – no one else did. And Spooner himself filed suit, causing the tweet to spread across the country. If I had to make a guess, this case settles before trial for an undisclosed amount; Bill Spooner becomes the NBA-version of umpire Joe West; due to the highly publicized nature of their official actions, the Court determines that NBA referees are public figures; we cry at the fact that the country is now ruled by “public figures” such as Bill Spooner, Sarah Palin, and the Situation; Bill Spooner is given a wedgie in the locker room and picked last for the annual refs vs. writers softball game; lawyers are the biggest winners in the end. We always are.