Bill Spooner is suing an AP reporter for defamation over an alleged in-game conversation Spooner had with Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis. (US PRESSWIRE)
NBA referee Bill Spooner has sued an Associated Press reporter, claiming the journalist defamed him by tweeting that Spooner promised Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis a make-up call during a Jan. 24 game against Houston.
The suit, which you can read here, seeks $75,000 in damages from the AP‘s Jon Krawczynski and was filed without the NBA’s knowledge, according to a source familiar with the matter. That last bit is pretty obvious when you read the complaint, which makes liberal and early mention of the Tim Donaghy scandal, with Spooner arguing that any accusation like this has a new seriousness in a post-Donaghy NBA. And as an aside here, Samuel Fifer, a partner at the huge law firm SNR Denton and a specialist in (among a few things) media law, says an aggressive defense lawyer might view the Donaghy mentions as an opportunity to force the NBA to file under some basis whatever material it has on the Donaghy issue. “He’s playing with fire here,” Fifer said of Spooner.
Update (4:40 p.m. ET): The league knew about the suit ahead of time and advised Spooner against filing it, according to a spokesman. The NBA also found Spooner did nothing wrong after the initial tweet prompted an investigation. Here’s the full statement from league spokesman Tim Frank: “We investigated the content of the tweet when it appeared, found it to be without substance, and informed Mr. Spooner that we considered the matter closed. We subsequently advised Mr. Spooner’s lawyer that we did not think suing a journalist over an incorrect tweet would be productive. Nevertheless, Mr. Spooner and his lawyer decided to commence this litigation, and any future inquiries should be directed to Mr. Spooner’s lawyer.”
Here’s the tweet:
“Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he’d ‘get it back’ after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks.”
The suit claims Spooner never said anything like that after Rambis protested the initial call on Anthony Tolliver — only that Spooner promised to review the call at halftime. Zach Harper, writing at A Wolf Among Wolves, has video of that play, and it’s indeed a stinker of a call. But Harper also has video of the alleged make-up calls (one on Patrick Patterson, one on Aaron Brooks), and neither seems even close to being a blatantly bad call.
The obvious question is if a suit like this has any legs. My initial reaction was that it probably doesn’t, but I’m not a lawyer, and a couple of lawyers told me Thursday that Spooner may have at least a little something here.
Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont Law School and a sports law expert (and a contributor to SI.com), told me the key thing Spooner has in his favor is that the tweet in question contains an apparent statement of fact. Krawczynski isn’t tweeting about Spooner’s hairdo or even expressing a general opinion about Spooner’s ability as a ref; instead, he’s alleging a very specific fact — that Spooner said a particular thing to Rambis, and that Krawczynski heard it. “That does get Spooner some traction,” McCann said.