Defamation and reputation management issues for athletes
The sports team at Mills & Reeve has successfully acted for footballers, clubs, and associations in defamation cases and regularly advise these clients on reputational issues. Part 1 of this two-part series includes the defamatory article and a subsequent match report. In Part 2, we rely on our considerable experience in these matters to create a case study for when a footballer is defamed based on Reevaldo’s circumstances.
As a result of Paddington’s manager fining and suspending Reevaldo on the day of a big match, hundreds of newspapers and online sites from around the world picked up on this story and published their own articles.
Additionally, the photos have been shared countless times on social media and this incident has been the subject of millions of posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as being discussed by pundits across the world on television, radio, and digital media platforms.
However, the article written by The Moon was untrue.
Reevaldo wasn’t at a club the night before the derby. He had a quiet night in having dinner and watching films with his wife and a few teammates.
The photos were taken months before, when Reevaldo first came to London to sign his contract with Paddington. The photos capturedthe night following Reevaldo’s introductory press conference, and the celebration was organised (and paid for) by Reevaldo’s agent, Jaco Moreno.
When the photos were taken, on 23 August, Reevaldo had just finished competing in Brazil’s gold-medal winning Olympic campaign and Paddington had given him two weeks to rest and get settled in London before starting football activities with the club.
Reevaldo was called into the ground by Nadal hours before the players were scheduled to arrive and was told that he would be benched for that night’s match at a minimum and would be fined two week’s wages.
Reevaldo was shocked, as he naturally had no idea about the fictitious incident Nadal was referring to.
Nadal was expecting a contrite apology, and when faced with Reevaldo’s protests, he interpreted this as lying and insubordination. As a result, Nadal told Reevaldo that he would now be fined one month’s wages and would be fined again for any future transgression, no matter how small for the foreseeable future. The examples Nadal used for future finable offences were – “if you are even one minute late to anything…” and “if I detect that you are giving anything less than 100% effort in training…”
Reevaldo attempted to plead his case and explain that he was with two teammates, who could naturally corroborate what he did last night, but Nadal mistakenly dismissed this as further lies.
At the end of the conversation, Nadal told Reevaldo that he would not be welcome at the match tonight, even in the stands, and to go home and prepare to come back and apologise both him as well as his teammates before training on Monday.
After further investigation over the weekend and numerous phone calls between Reevaldo’s agent and the club, Paddington officials finally recognised that the story published by The Moon was inaccurate.
Reevaldo is protected against defamation. This means that statements must not be made to others about Reevaldo that lower his reputation in the estimation of reasonable people and cause harm. Defamatory statements include ‘libel’ in a written or permanent form including statements made on TV and radio and ‘slander’ which are defamatory statements made to others orally. The law of defamation is based on common law but has been substantially modified by statute, most recently the Defamation Act 2013 (“the Act”).
Plainly the Moon’s article could be interpreted by readers in a way that Reevaldo is irresponsible, unprofessional and a rule breaker not committed to his Club and profession, all of which go right to ‘the heart of the game’ and Reevaldo’s obligations as a professional footballer, causing harm to his reputation.
What if the statements are true? Well, if Reevaldo had been drinking and partying, the articles and the statements made would not be defamatory. If a statement is true, it is a complete defence to a defamation claim (Section 2 of the Act).
As the statements are not true, Reevaldo has a claim for defamation against The Moon and each ‘publisher’ of the defamatory content, including any institution or person who has published the allegations in print, online and on social media. Section 1 of the Act sets out the definitions of Author, Editor and Publisher.
Reevaldo’s claim would seek a financial award of damages and the most serious cases of defamation attract damages in the region of £275,000. In addition, Reevaldo could seek a correction and / or an apology from the publisher(s) and a statement in open court.
What about the article being in the public interest? The Moon could try and defend a defamation claim on the basis the article and statements made were a matter of public interest ( Section 4 of the Act). However, there is no definition of what is in the public interest and it would not be an easy defence for The Moon to rely upon. Just because Reevaldo is in the public eye, it doesn’t mean all things about him are ‘in the public interest’.
Noting the content of the article and the fact that Reevaldo was not contacted by The Moon in advance of the article being published he could also complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation who would launch an investigation, possibly leading to a correction being published.
What first steps should Reevaldo take?
From a practical perspective, Reevaldo is obviously distressed about the untrue statements.
In the first instance, in this situation and in advance of making a complaint about defamation, Reevaldo would be well advised to:
1. Without delay contact his team, PR advisors, solicitors and agent to consider mitigating the damage caused and discuss writing an urgent letter of claim to The Moon. This is a requirement of the Civil Procedure Rules (Defamation claims have a specific pre action protocol). He should also consider putting his own press statement out. Before releasing a statement, Reevaldo would consult with his lawyers to ensure the statement is in order and does not contravene any other obligations or leave him exposed. For both practical and legal reasons, swift action should be taken in any potential defamation matter. For practical reasons, it is important to get out in front of the inaccurate story as soon as possible. For legal reasons, defamation actions have just a one-year limitation period for which to bring a claim (Section 5 of the Defamation Act 1996 / Section 4A of the Limitation Act 1980).
2. Contact his sponsors and other third party stakeholders. Reevaldo or his team should explain that the allegations are untrue and that he is taking steps to rectify the damage caused, including launching a claim for defamation. Reevaldo’s sponsors may not be happy to read about him partying at any time, which could contravene morality and behaviour clauses and potentially be contradictory to the brand and brand values he endorses, so this needs addressing swiftly.
3. Monitor media, collate evidence and report to social media. Reevaldo or his team should carefully monitor all articles in print and online and social media content. A file should be kept with hard copy articles plus screen shots of online material and social media posts. If a compliant is made and proceedings are issued, these will be crucial to Reevaldo’s claim, particularly as serious harm must be caused (s1 of the Act). Consideration should also be given to whether any particularly damaging tweets, Facebook posts or other platform posts are reported as to Twitter/Facebook offensive material, seeking their immediate removal.
Long-term reputation management
For Reevaldo (and all sports professionals), a picture or article regarding him leaving a nightclub in a worse for wear state could contravene contractual obligations, limit future sporting and commercial opportunities, and result in questions to deal with after the morning after. There is not just danger of partying during curfew, or drinking alcohol, at any social event footballers are often approached to chat, or are in the presence of individuals listening in for any personal content that could be newsworthy. Reevaldo should be cautious who he talks to and what he says.
In a wider context, sports professionals should be extremely protective of their reputation. Reevaldo would be well advised to:
1. Be familiar with the club’s communications policies and standards expected of him and any contractual obligations that may be linked to his reputation; he should act consistently with his club, league, and any sponsors’ brand values.
2. Have a reputation management strategy in place for what will happen if adverse press or damaging social media is published. Negative and/or untrue statements should be acted upon quickly and consistently and a team ready to issue any press statement as appropriate.
3. Have systems in place for monitoring press in print and on social media. It is not uncommon to have consultants carry out this task and any publications of concern should be reviewed and acted upon, if one slips through the net without any complaint, Reevaldo may be perceived to be ‘soft’ in his stance on such matters; to the contrary, taking robust action with defamatory content will likely dissuade others from future offenses.
This article should provide an overview of the defamation issues, but the fallout from this incident is far-reaching. Reevaldo is understandably upset, has lost all respect for Nadal, and faces the prospect of working with a manager who clearly doesn’t trust him. Additionally, there is the matter of the fines and suspension. This incident has also prompted a breakdown in the relationship between Reevaldo and Paddington and these issues will be discussed in our next entry.