- Sure, it would be a tough, but Dalvin Cook could make a case that the saboteur caused his reputation suffered enough harm before the NFL draft to warrant a lawsuit.
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook is one of the more puzzling players to project in the upcoming NFL draft. While Cook is a consensus first round talent—some have gone so far as to compare him to a young Marshall Faulk—serious concerns about Cook’s character could drop him into the second round. Those concerns are fueled in part by Cook’s legal troubles, which include facing trial for allegedly punching a woman in the face outside a Tallahassee bar in 2015 (a jury acquitted Cook) and being cited for mistreating animals in ’14.
While Cook’s encounters with the law are his own doing, Cook also appears to be the victim of a so-called “saboteur,” a person who has intentionally spread false rumors about Cook to members of the football community. These rumors could cause Cook to fall in the draft and lose millions of dollars as a result.
On Tuesday, MMQB’s Robert Klemko penned an in-depth article about Cook and the saboteur, whom Klemko describes as an established “runner” (recruiter) for NFL agents. Among other damaging tales, the saboteur has described Cook as showing up late for workouts and talking with breath that reeks of alcohol. Cook is also portrayed as hanging around persons who are associated with wrongdoing. The saboteur’s basic depiction of Cook is crystal clear: he is trouble waiting to happen, so it’s best not to draft him. As to the saboteur’s motive, a scout speculated to Klemko that it might reflect resentment on the part of the saboteur that Cook did not hire him or an agent for whom he runs.
Legal and financial implications of badmouthing an NFL prospect
The idea that a person is intentionally spreading lies about Cook in order to damage his draft stock could take on legal significance. Cook could argue that he would have been drafted higher but for the reputational damage inflicted by the saboteur. Cook would need physical proof, such as emails, texts and voicemails, as well as corroborating witness testimony, to advance such a claim. He would also, of course, need to show that the allegations about him are, in fact, false.
If Cook possessed the requisite evidence to prove liability, he would have several potential legal claims at his disposal. For instance, he could sue for defamation, contending that the saboteur intentionally spread false facts about him. Defamatory statements must be expressed as factual statements rather than mere opinions. Untrue claims that Cook was late for practice and smelled like he had been drinking are factual sounding criticisms. Cook is also a public figure, which means he would have to prove “actual malice”—that the saboteur knowingly spread false information about him. This again seems like a surmountable hurdle given that the saboteur appears to know that his statements about Cook are untrue.
Cook would also have a compelling argument that the saboteur interfered with his prospective business relations with NFL teams. The gist of this argument would be that the saboteur sought to dissuade teams with first round draft picks from negotiating with Cook.
Cook’s representatives could also sue. The value of their commission on Cook’s NFL contract will be contingent on the value of that contract.
Speaking of Cook’s potential NFL contract, if Cook could credibly establish that the saboteur harmed his draft status, damages would be measurable and, possibly, substantial. The NFL employs a sliding rookie wage scale that determines pay based on when a player is selected. Rookie contracts are for four years, although for players selected in the first round, teams can extend their contracts to a fifth year. As shown on Spotrac, the player selected first overall in the 2017 NFL draft can expect a contract worth $30.3 million, while the players selected 10th and 20th should anticipate deals worth $16.4 million and $11.0 million, respectively. Falling into the second round impacts more than just the pride of draft-eligible players. A player selected No. 33 overall—the first pick in the second round—can expect a contract worth $7.1 million, while the player selected No. 64—the last pick in the second round—can bank on a deal worth $4.2 million.
All of the players drafted in the first two rounds will become “rich” under any sensible interpretation of that word. However, if badmouthing caused Cook to fall from a player who would have been picked around 20 to one selected 35, the drop would have cost him about $5 million. The financial harm would be even higher if Cook could further show that the reputational damage denied him of endorsement opportunities.
Not an easy case
There would be several hurdles in a lawsuit brought by Cook based on pre-draft badmouthing.
First, it’s unclear if the saboteur would have the financial wherewithal to pay off a civil judgment. Runners often work in the shadows and some are paid under-the-table. Some runners are also known to deal in unethical practices, such as paying college athletes as an inducement to sign with an agent. If Cook sues this particular runner and is awarded several million dollars in damages, Cook might never see most of that award. A civil judgment is a court order issued to a defendant to pay up, but if that defendant can’t pay up now or later, the court order becomes more of a symbolic victory than anything else. Cook might also sue the agent or agents who employed the runner, but Cook would need evidence that those persons were involved in the scheme.
The substance of the lawsuit brought by Cook would also be challenging. NFL teams weigh numerous factors in deciding whether to draft one player instead of one of the many others who are still on the board. Those factors include how well a player projects to play in the NFL, but also how well a player fits into a particular team’s schemes and whether he would fill a need. A player’s character is also part of this analysis, but proving that one team would have drafted Cook at one particular point in the draft would be very difficult. Such a team would also be reluctant to admit that it would have drafted Cook but for the reputational concerns. Team officials always want the player that they actually selected to believe that he was their guy all along. Expert witnesses, such as former NFL team executives retained by Cook’s attorneys, could help Cook establish where he would have been selected, but it would still be an uphill climb.
Cook’s character issues are also difficult to disaggregate. Some of them are self-inflicted while others appear to be the result of a saboteur’s acts. The defendants in a lawsuit brought by Cook would contend that teams are lukewarm about Cook mostly because of the legal problems he’s faced—especially the allegation that he repeatedly punched a woman—rather than comparatively mild critiques about his punctuality and the persons with whom he associates.
While Cook is clearly not the best potential plaintiff in a case over pre-draft badmouthing, the risk of a draft-eligible player suffering reputational harm before the draft is real and potentially very impactful. Last year’s Twitter hack of Laremy Tunsil illustrated this point as well. As players navigate through the transition from college athlete to NFL athlete, they and their agents need to ready to counter false rumors. If it takes going to court to do so, so be it.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.