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Sports Illustrated wins appeal over boxing story verdict

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         SIXTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Jan 31, 2002    

Sports Illustrated wins appeal over boxing story verdict

  • An appellate court overturned a federal jury’s libel award to a former professional boxer who said the magazine defamed him by writing that he helped fix a fight and used cocaine after the match.

A federal appeals court overturned a $10.7 million libel verdict against Sports Illustrated on Jan. 30.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) ruled that the magazine and its reporters did not act with actual malice when they published that former professional boxer and character actor Randall “Tex” Cobb was involved with fixing a match and that he used cocaine after the match.

“The jury’s verdict cannot stand without significantly infringing on the ‘breathing space’ that the (Supreme) Court has carved out for the freedom of speech,” the three-judge appellate panel wrote.

Sports Illustrated published an article titled “The Fix Was In” on Oct. 4, 1993. The article reported that Cobb knowingly participated with another boxer, Paul “Sonny” Barch, in fixing a boxing match in Florida in 1992. The article also said Cobb used cocaine with Barch after their fight. Cobb sued the magazine for libel in Tennessee.

Cobb had to prove that the magazine knew that the statements in the story were false, or that the magazine acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Sports Illustrated based its story in part on interviews with Barch, whose truthfulness the magazine had reason to doubt, the court said. However, the magazine’s reporters corroborated Barch’s story with at least one independent source who was a boxing expert, who witnessed the Cobb-Barch fight, and who reviewed a videotape of the match, the court found.

Sports Illustrated reporters with significant experience covering boxing also watched the videotape and concluded that Cobb was in on the fix, which gave the magazine further reason to believe Barch, the court wrote.

The magazine paid Barch for his first-person account but that did not amount to actual malice, the court said.

The court found no significance in the fact that the first-person narrative attributed to Barch was actually “ghost written” by a Sports Illustrated reporter. The magazine argued that ghost writing first-person accounts for athletes was standard practice, and Cobb did not show how the practice amounted to actual malice.

The magazine did not interview the referee and other ringside officials who were at the Florida match, which tends to show that the magazine “might not have acted as a prudent reporter would have acted,” the ruling says. “But the actual malice standard requires more than just proof of negligence.”

(Cobb v. Time, Inc.; Media counsel: Floyd Abrams, Cahill, Gordon & Reindel, New York City) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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