Temple Basketball Coach Loses Again in Defamation Case

Aug 18, 2006

A Pennsylvania trial court has reaffirmed its grant of summary judgment to a journalist, who cited an anonymous source in reporting that an assistant basketball coach at Temple University had a substance abuse problem that led to “a theft problem” in the Owls’ locker room.
Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff did not demonstrate “actual malice” on the part of the defendant, nor did the plaintiff show that the report of “a theft problem” prevented him from finding suitable employment after he resigned from Temple.
The impetus for the litigation was a report that aired on March 9, 2003, a day after plaintiff Nathaniel Blackwell, an assistant coach and former Temple basketball star, was suspended indefinitely for “violating team rules.”
The reporter, Howard Eskin, cited an anonymous source, Temple Police Officer Charles Campbell, who suggested that Blackwell had an addiction to cocaine, that Temple knew about his drug problem and that, a year earlier, Blackwell had been involved in a theft problem in the Temple locker room.
Blackwell sued Eskin and the television station, alleging that the theft statement defamed him, placed him in a false light and interfered with his prospective contractual relations.
The court began its analysis by noting that Blackwell, a former Atlantic Ten Conference Player of the Year, was a public figure, not only because of his successful playing career, but also because of some of his responsibilities as a coach. Blackwell, for example, was involved in “making public appearances on behalf of Coach Chaney and the team to the media and at fundraisers.” The court also noted that Blackwell conceded he was a public figure.
As such, “he must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that Eskin made the statement with ‘actual malice’ to be liable for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. See, New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964); Tucker v. Philadelphia Daily News, 577 Pa. 598, 848 A.2d 113 (Pa. 2004).”
“Examining the undisputed facts is necessary to evaluate whether Mr. Eskin acted with actual malice,” wrote the court. “As a sworn Temple police officer assigned to guard the coach and players, Officer Campbell had regular contact with the players and their coaches. Officer Campbell repeatedly mentioned Mr. Blackwell’s drug abuse to Mr. Eskin. Officer Campbell’s job responsibilities involved investigating or reporting crimes including theft. Thus, when Officer Campbell told Mr. Eskin that Mr. Blackwell had been involved in a theft problem in the locker room, it was logical for Mr. Eskin to assume this information was learned in the course of Officer Campbell’s duties.
“Other events seemed to corroborate what Officer Campbell told Mr. Eskin. When Mr. Eskin raised the drug problem issue with Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw, he was evasive and refused to answer but did not deny that Mr. Blackwell had a drug problem,” wrote the court in citing the defendants’ summary judgment motion. “In the days preceding Mr. Eskin’s broadcast, Mr. Blackwell inexplicably missed games. Temple University issued a press release stating that Mr. Blackwell was suspended for violating team rules. Temple seemed to be withholding some information such as what ‘team rules’ Mr. Blackwell had violated that would warrant publicly announcing an indefinite suspension. Mr. Blackwell was not even available to the press to comment on his suspension from the team.
“Mr. Eskin’s broadcast followed these events, which were consistent with, and certainly did not contradict, the information he received from Officer Campbell. There has been no evidence that Mr. Eskin knew, or even should have known, that Officer Campbell was unreliable. Similarly, there has been no evidence that Mr. Eskin had any vendetta against Mr. Blackwell.
“Lacking any direct evidence of actual malice, the thrust of Plaintiff’s argument is that Mr. Eskin was negligent by failing to adequately investigate the truth of the theft statement and for trusting a Temple police officer as his source. Both the United States Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania courts have consistently held that mere negligence or recklessness by the defendant reporter in investigating a story does not show actual malice.”
Turning to the plaintiff’s claim of “interference with prospective economic advantage,” the court found that Blackwell provided no evidence of a prospective employer who would hire him, as a past cocaine abuser, were it not for the theft accusation.
“Instead, he merely asserts that the theft statement has ‘severely compromised his very employability in his chosen profession.’ He also submits Coach Chaney’s speculative opinion that a coach who admittedly used illegal drugs previously while coaching players would be employable but if that same coach was said to have stolen from players, even if the theft were not believed, he would not be employable as a coach.
Temple’s own deputy provost and dean, Richard Englert, contradicted Chaney, saying the school “would not hire a cocaine addict to coach student athletes.”
Nathaniel Blackwell v. Howard Eskin, WCAU-TV, d/b/a 10 NBC, et al.; Common Pleas Ct. of Philadelphia Co., Penn., Civil Trial Div; NO. 02098; 3/14/06


Articles in Current Issue