The forced removal of retired New York Knicks star Charles Oakley from Wednesday’s Knicks-Los Angeles Clippers game at Madison Square Garden has sparked a legal controversy that keeps growing.
As previously detailed on The Crossover, Oakley was charged with three counts of assault and one count of trespass after he and several Madison Square Garden employees scuffled a few rows behind the court. In an incident that was recorded by multiple cameras, Oakley threw punches and shoved, though the resulting injuries were reportedly very minor and none of the injuries required any medical attention. Oakley’s outburst appears to have been directed mainly at Knicks owner James Dolan, who was sitting nearby and whom Oakley contends has treated him with disrespect and disdain.
Dolan opens the door to be sued by Oakley for defamation
Dolan escalated the Oakley conflict in remarks made while on Friday’s The Michael Kay Show. During the interview, Dolan declared that Oakley suffers from a “problem with anger” and that Oakley is “both physically and verbally abusive,” which Dolan—who does not appear to have any formal training in medicine—classified as “personality problems.”
Dolan also speculated that Oakley “may have a problem with alcohol,” though Dolan—perhaps sensing the possibility of being sued for slander—cautioned, “We don’t know.” Dolan referred to alcohol and Oakley at another point in the interview. Although Dolan did not expressly say that Oakley’s behavior was linked to alcohol, he uttered the following remark when discussing his ban of Oakley from Knicks home games: "Anybody who comes to the Garden, whether they have been drinking too much alcohol, they're looking for a fight, they're abusive, disrespectful to the staff and the fans, they're gonna be ejected, and they're gonna be banned.”
Dolan’s remarks follow a statement by the Knicks public relations staff on Wednesday about Oakley’s stunning ejection. While the statement acknowledged the Oakley was “a great Knick” it also expressed “we hope he gets help soon.”
It’s possible that Oakley could sue Dolan and the Knicks for slander and libel, respectively. Slander refers to a legal claim concerning spoken words that allegedly caused the plaintiff to suffer reputational damage. Libel is functionally the same as slander, except involving written words. Slander and libel are the two types of defamation claims.
In order to succeed in a defamation lawsuit, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s statement was relatively specific and expressed as a factual statement. If the statement instead seemed generic and was expressed as a mere opinion, it would not constitute defamation. For example, saying that another person “is having sexual relations outside of marriage” would be specific and expressed as a fact. In contrast, saying that another person “is a bad person” would be vague and expressed as an opinion and thus not defamation.
Truth is the best defense against a defamation claim: even if a statement is very specific and deeply insulting, it would not constitute defamation if it is in fact true. Celebrities—such as Oakley—have the added hurdle in defamation lawsuits of proving “actual malice,” meaning the statement about them is not only defaming and untrue, but the defendant must have known or should have known it was untrue.
Here, Dolan offered a fairly specific and factually sounding remark when claiming that Oakley has a “problem with anger.” Dolan elaborated on this characterization by saying that Oakley is “both physically and verbally abusive” and that these allegedly abusive behaviors establish that Oakley has “personality problems.” To claim that another person is “abusive” is an obviously damming remark, especially when it is linked to an accompanying assertion that the “abusive” person has an anger management problem and suffers from some sort of personality disorder. Dolan’s accusations thus posit that Oakley suffers from medical conditions and should seek treatment and counseling.
Dolan, however, could contend that his remarks were not intended to be medical or clinical diagnoses. He could stress he lacks the requisite qualifications to offer anything beyond mere opinion. After all, he attended SUNY New Paltz as a communications major before starting a business career in his father’s company. Dolan is thus far from an authoritative voice on whether someone is “abusive” from a medical or legal standpoint. Therefore, Dolan might contend, his remarks should be regarded as mere opinion. Dolan, however, may be more knowledgeable than the typical person about anger and alcohol issues. As S.L. Price wrote for Sports Illustrated in his 2007 piece “Lord Jim”, Dolan is known to have issues with temper, along with previous drug and alcohol problems, and thus might be fairly well versed on his claims about Oakley. Dolan’s background could thus work against him should Oakley sue.
As noted above, working against Oakley in any defamation lawsuit would be the actual malice threshold—he would need to prove that Dolan knew or should have known his remarks about Oakley were untrue. However, certain types of statements are so defamatory that they are considered defamation per se, which means they are presumed defamatory and overcome the actual malice standard. One such type is falsely accusing another person of committing a crime. Dolan did not quite do that. However, Dolan asserting that Oakley is “physically and verbally abusive” is consistent with claiming that Oakley engaged in unlawful behavior. Dolan, however, could emphasize that police arrested Oakley for assault and thus observing that Oakley is abusive would be consistent with Oakley’s arrest.
As to Dolan saying that Oakley “may have a problem with alcohol,” he selected his words carefully. Dolan used “may” rather than the definitive “does” and he added, “We’re not sure.” Then again, Dolan, when discussing Oakley’s ban, referred to someone who “drink[s] too much alcohol” as one who can be subject to a ban. Whether such a link is sufficient to establish defamation remains to be seen.
The Knicks’ statement on Wednesday provides another ground to Oakley for a potential defamation lawsuit. But it might not be a winnable ground. After all, telling the world that the team “hopes” Oakley “gets help soon” is fairly vague in that it doesn’t specify the kind of “help” Oakley allegedly needs. For example, are the Knicks claiming that Oakley needs help on being a responsible fan? Or, does he need help on dealing with anger or alcohol issues? Or some combination thereof? The lack of precision helps the Knicks. Then again, the Knicks’ ambiguous recommendation for Oakley arguably becomes more definable when considering Dolan’s subsequent remarks about Oakley having anger and alcohol issues. If so, Oakley’s potential claims would be strengthened.
As a final note about Oakley’s potential defamation claims: keep in mind that truth is an absolute defense. Consequently, if Oakley in fact has anger or alcohol issues, neither the Knicks nor Dolan would likely have committed defamation—even when viewing their remarks in the most critical light.
Oakley could also sue over any injuries suffered during his removal
As I wrote earlier on The Crossover, Oakley could also sue over how he was removed from Madison Square Garden. To be sure, the Knicks have very wide latitude in deciding on whether a ticket holder must leave the facility. But how the ticket holder is removed raises a separate category of legal issues. If Oakley believes Knicks employees mistreated him while he exited MSG, he could conceivably sue for battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Dolan plans to ban Oakley from Knicks games—a lawful, if unwise, move
Dolan has banned Oakley from attending Knicks home games so long as Oakley is a threat to misbehave. As I explained on The Crossover on Wednesday, Dolan has the legal right to deny access to Knicks home games since game tickets are revocable licenses. This means Oakley could buy a ticket to attend a Knicks game and the Knicks could lawfully refuse to honor it (so long as the Knicks refund Oakley the amount he paid for the ticket).
Oakley is not the first banned person from NBA games. Former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from attending games as part of his lifetime ban over racially insensitive remarks. Likewise, Detroit Pistons fan John Green was banned from attending home Pistons game for his role in the 2004 “Malice at the Palace” brawl featuring Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal and other players.
Whether the Knicks banning Oakley—who is beloved by many Knicks fans—is a smart business idea and a wise public relations strategy are separate topics. It’s one thing to ban a racist owner or an irreponsible fan. It’s another to ban a former All-Star who was consistently praised for his work ethic and who played a crucial role in the Knicks advancing to the 1994 NBA Finals. Still, it’s within Dolan’s legal rights to ban Oakley from an arena that Dolan’s business, the Madison Square Garden Company, owns.
The ball is now in Oakley’s court. In a tweet Friday night, Oakley expressed his love for the Knicks and revealed that he will hold a press conference week. We’ll be watching.
Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.