By Bryanna Fissori
Despite the fact that they have yet to face-off in the ring, there is no love lost between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. The two competitors took their rivalry to the next level in December of 2009, when Pacquiao filed a defamation law suit against Mayweather. Other defendants also named include Floyd Mayweather Sr., Roger Mayweather, Mayweather Promotions, LLC., Richard Schaefer and Oscar De La Hoya.
Over a year later the litigation continues. In May of 2010 Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss. This motion is applicable when a party is able to prove that the opponent’s claim is without merit. If the dismissal is granted, the case is stopped dead in its tracks. Nearly a year after the motion was filed, Judge Larry Hicks of the United States District Court of Nevada entered an order denying the defendant’s motion and thus finding Pacquiao’s claim actionable. Now we are getting somewhere.
The original complaint filed in federal court alleges that Pacquiao was defamed by statements made implying and asserting that he was and is using PEDs (performance enhancing drugs). Because the statements were made orally the type of defamation declared is slander, as opposed to libel, which pertains to written defamation.
Most of the alleged commentary was made during the period when Pacqiao and Mayweather were negotiating the possibility of a fight (in the ring). Some of the alleged statements listed in Pacquiao’s complaint included De La Hoya’s proclamation comparing Pacquiao’s punches to those of other fighters who have taken PEDs, and Schaefer’s statement that he “was sure” Pacquiao uses PED’s. Also entered was Mayweather Jr.’s statement made during a nationally-broadcast radio interview in which he stated that the Phillippines have access to some of the best PEDs and that is what Pacquiao can contribute his growth to. Mayweather also stated at a press junket that Pacquiao has “the power pellets, yo, the steroid juice.” Numerous other statements were also alleged in the complaint, though not all need to be found actionable in order to justify denial of the motion to dismiss.
Defendants De La Hoya and Schaefer, in conjunction with their motion to dismiss, made an argument for “anti-SLAPP,” which the court refused to admit. “SLAPP” is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. SLAPP is typically referred to in cases where the plaintiff files a suit in which they do not necessarily expect to prevail, but instead serves to intimidate the defendant and exhaust their resources. The court found the SLAPP argument inapplicable, though allowed the remainder of the motion to stand submitted.
After hearing oral arguments on the merit of Pacquiao’s claim, the court found that the alleged statements met all elements of the test for a defamation cause of action per se. The court determined that a reasonable listener would comprehend and interpret the statements made to imply that Pacquiao is using and has used PEDs. The alleged statements are presumed facts not available to a reasonable listener, but a reasonable listener would assume implied actual knowledge of the statement’s truth. The court also found that the claim sufficiently alleged actual malice on the part of the defendants which is legally defined as “knowledge of the falsity of a statement or reckless disregard for its truth.” This is a standard specific to cases involving “public figures.”
The parties will now have the opportunity to stand toe to toe, likely in front of a Las Vegas jury, to decide the case. Despite victory in defeating the motion to dismiss, Pacquiao’s legal team still has a lot of obstacles to overcome given that the standards for defamation are much higher when one is considered a “public figure.” The average Joe would only have to show knowledge of falsity of the statement, where as the First Amendment requires that a defamation plaintiff prove “actual malice” or “reckless disregard of the truth” when the plaintiff is a public official or public figure. New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). This burden of proof is much higher and more difficult to achieve. Though the court has already acknowledged the sufficient allegations of the standard, actual proof interpreted by a jury is still far from being obtained.
A finding of “actual malice” or “reckless disregard of the truth,” is subjective as to the state of mind of the speaker at the time the statement was made. Unique to fight games is the accompanying pre and post-fight hype that virtually always includes negative statements exchanged between opponents. Fighters are generally accustomed to having free reign to promote themselves and demean their opponents without serious regard to consequences. With no offense to the intelligence of competitors, some statements made by fighters in the adrenaline driven hysteria of passing interviews and press conferences can be so contradictory or unfathomable that no reasonable person would take them at face value.
Heavyweight trash talker James Toney has been quoted as referring to MMA fighter John “Bones” Jones as “Homo Jones” and also stated, ”Tell him to go drink an Ecstasy drink because I heard that’s what he likes to do; just another bitch ass New Yorker.” In one paragraph Toney was able to make defamatory implications about Jones’ sexual orientation as well as illegal drug use. Whether or not a reasonable listener would believe those statements to have legitimacy is the legal question.
In the same year Pacquiao filled the pending defamation suit, John Ibarra, ex-trainer for MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, filed a claim against MMA fighter Tito Ortiz for statements that Ibarra was a “thief” and a “scumbag” and had stolen from Jackson.
General statements about a fighter’s ability in the ring or graphic predictions about fight outcomes stand to have little effect on the reputation of a competitor, but some statements carry more weight. A trial date has yet to be confirmed for the long awaited Pacquiao v Mayweather, and settlement negotiations could be taking place, but a jury decision could give competitors a reason think twice about the way they trash-talk their opponents.
The saying use to be “It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye,” but in this case there is always risk of such an injury. The fun stops when somebody gets slapped with a law suit.