Sticks and Stone Can Hurt People, But Disagreement Between NFL Players Is A Reminder That Words Also Can Hurt Us


By:  Jeffrey Hord

In the final minute of last November’s NFL game between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped off Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at Rudolph, hitting him in the head. This attack drew national attention and resulted in an indefinite suspension for Garrett. Despite the shocking nature of the attack, some early speculation that Rudolph might sue Garrett for battery for the this on-field altercation showed no signs of spilling over into the courts…until now.
Last week, during an interview with ESPN’s Mina Kimes, Garrett repeated a claim that he first made in the days following the November brawl: specifically, that Rudolph had sparked the fight by calling Garrett a racial slur. Rudolph has emphatically denied the allegation and also notes that the NFL investigated Garrett’s allegation and concluded that there was “no evidence to support” his claim.
Now, Rudolph’s attorney has responded to Garret’s latest allegation by suggesting that his client may now sue Garrett for slander. In California – where the interview with Kimes took place – slander involves a false statement by one person about another person which tends directly to injure the victim with respect to his office, profession, trade or business. Rudolph essentially contends that his reputation has been damaged by the accusation that he used a racial epithet.
Interestingly, however, Rudolph may not prevail simply by proving that the allegation is false. Rather, if Rudolph is deemed a “public figure” in the eyes of the law, Rudolph then will have to prove that Garrett also acted with actual malice in making the allegation. Under California law, “actual malice” is a higher standard to meet as it must be proven that the false statement was made with actual knowledge that the statement is false or with reckless disregard for the truth. If the fight that started on the field leads to a legal fight off the field, it will be interesting to see if Garrett tries to push it into the NFL’s grievance system, what evidence Garrett relies upon in support of his allegation, whether a court finds that Rudolph is a “public figure” and how Rudolph may try and use the NFL’s report as evidence that he did not utter the alleged word.
If you have questions regarding defamation or other tort claims, feel free to contact Jeffrey Hord at