It may appear that lawsuits filed by Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard against Al Jazeera are public relations plays -- like so many lawsuits that are threatened by athletes under public pressure -- but they actually present a tremendous legal threat to the network.
We know by now that the Al Jazeera report centers around an athlete-turned-undercover-reporter, Liam Collins, who secretly videotaped a self-proclaimed expert in nutrition and supplements, Charles Sly. Sly is on camera saying that he had provided performance-enhancing drugs to a number of athletes, including Zimmerman and Howard.
But here's the issue: Because some of the contents of the story were placed in other media before it aired, Sly made his own video recording and recanted all of his assertions, including those against Zimmerman and Howard. "To be clear, I am recanting any such statements and there is no truth to any statement of mine that Al Jazeera plans to air," he said. As a result, Al Jazeera's reporters and executives knew before it broadcast and published its story that its principal source had recanted all of his claims.
That puts Al Jazeera in an interesting legal situation.
Publication of a story alleging the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs after the source of the information has recanted could qualify as malicious and reckless conduct -- key factors in libel, slander and defamation court cases. Should a jury cite maliciousness and recklessness in a decision against Al Jazeera, Zimmerman and Howard can expect enormous awards.
If Al Jazeera had additional evidence that supported Sly's recanted claims that he provided the steroid Delta 2 to Zimmerman and Howard, it would begin to provide a justification for its decision to publish the story despite Sly's recanting. But as the lawsuits explain, Al Jazeera offered no corroboration in its broadcasts or published reports. The network did not offer any similar shipping records, used syringes, drug test results or empty vials that were significant parts of the investigations into BALCO, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. After the report aired, an Al Jazeera reporter told CNN that there was a second source who corroborated Sly's information, but she declined to offer details and said the source could not be mentioned in the original report because the source's anonymity needed to be protected. She did not explain why it was OK for her to mention the second source's information a few days after the report aired.
With his recanting, Sly has, in effect, moved to the legal side of Howard and Zimmerman -- a problem for Al Jazeera should a trial occur. Sly would almost certainly be called by their attorneys to testify, and he'd testify what he has already said about the Al Jazeera recordings: "Under no circumstances should any of those statements, recordings or communications be aired." After such testimony, the attorneys for Al Jazeera would be in the difficult position of attacking in cross-examination the veracity and credibility of their source for the story. It would make Al Jazeera's defense of its story virtually untenable.
Another major strategy in the lawsuit sets up Zimmerman and Howard as men of unassailable character in contrast to the athlete-turned-reporter, Collins, who has a questionable past.
Zimmerman and Howard have amassed sterling records of contributions to their communities, according to the lawsuits. Zimmerman, whose mother suffered from multiple sclerosis, has "helped countless others afflicted by the disease," the lawsuit states. It also states that through his ziMS Foundation, Zimmerman has invested more than $1.5 million in MS research.
Howard has two foundations devoted to promotion of academics and athletics among disadvantaged youth. His Big Piece Foundation also focuses on literacy and recently built "Howard's Homeroom" in an elementary school in Philadelphia, an interactive, baseball-themed reading room "filled with hundreds of books, computers, iPads, and comfortable reading nooks," the lawsuit says. According to the lawsuit, Howard and his wife have also produced a line of children's books known as "Little Rhino" that emphasize the "importance of school work, teamwork, and acceptance."
In contrast, the Al Jazeera undercover reporter, Collins, according to the lawsuits, declared bankruptcy in 2012 after he was caught in a failed real estate scheme in which his investors lost millions. Most recently, Collins was seen dancing on the street in Glasgow, Scotland, in an Iron Man costume begging for donations "to pay for his wedding," the lawsuit asserts.
The Zimmerman-Howard lawyers also take aim at Al Jazeera's credibility overall and include descriptions of a "mass exodus of top executives" there, including a CEO, the departure of a news director, and the suspension of a network lawyer who was not licensed to practice law.
If the case ever reached the point of a jury trial in federal court in Washington, it would pit two celebrity athletes with records of substantial good work against a network that has been accused in the past of anti-American bias by U.S. politicians, particularly the Bush administration. Fair or not, such things often affect jurors' decisions.
Despite Sly's withdrawal of each of his assertions against Zimmerman and Howard, the management of Al Jazeera is standing by its reporters and its story. It's a position that could become increasingly difficult if Peyton Manning, who was also implicated in the report, decides to join Zimmerman and Howard and files a lawsuit.
Manning, who has said he will decide whether to sue after his Denver Broncos have finished their playoff run, could present Al Jazeera with what may be the most formidable adversary in the sports industry. The Al Jazeera report linked Peyton and his wife, Ashley, to shipments of PEDs to multiple locations, each addressed to his wife. Manning has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He is a hugely popular player with an impeccable reputation. Unless Al Jazeera's reporters are withholding something such as records of shipments of HGH or Delta 2 to Manning's wife -- records they have not produced at this time -- the network could face an even bigger challenge than those it faces from Howard and Zimmerman.