The college basketball scene here in Tucson has been a little chaotic. Unless you have been hanging out in your basement all week, you are now aware that ESPN recently reported having knowledge of an alleged FBI wiretap recording of a phone conversation between University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller and an agent that involved paying a player to play for the Wildcats. While some of the media has called for coach Miller's head, others have seriously questioned the factual accuracy of the report, noting critically that the person who made the report, Mark Schlabach, does not appear to have even had access to or listened to the alleged wiretap. Coach Miller has vehemently denied any accusation that he has been involved in any foul play.
Now that the report is being cast into serious doubt, many wonder whether Sean Miller and/or the University can succeed in a defamation lawsuit against the media outlets and reporters that published such serious accusations without much confirmation at all regarding their accuracy. To answer this question, let's review the elements a plaintiff must prove to succeed in defamation claim:
The defamatory statement must be communicated or published to a third party.
Let alone the entire country. This has clearly occurred.
The defamatory statement was made negligently or with actual malice.
If coach Miller was an everyday, regular citizen, he would simply have to prove the statement was made negligently, or unreasonably in light of the circumstances. Because he is a public figure, however, the standard is higher. Public figures have to prove that the reporter made the statement either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
A good case can be made that this report was made with reckless disregard for the truth or the consequences it might have on others. A nationally known entity with a gargantuan reader/listener base like ESPN should know better than to report something accusing someone of a federal crime purely through hearsay and without having any access to the actual source that would confirm the accusation.
The defamatory statement has caused the plaintiff harm or damages.
Sean Miller's livelihood is on the line and the University's reputation has been challenged. Future recruits have de-committed. This element can clearly be checked off.
The defamatory statement must be false.
Obviously, the coach and the University cannot sue a media outlet for reporting the truth. If a lawsuit were to occur, it is likely the alleged wiretap would be made available to the parties for review. If the wiretap either doesn't exist or reveals a conversation much different than what has been alleged, ESPN and other media outlets might be in a bit of trouble. If coach Miller or the University does file a lawsuit, it probably indicates they are confident of this outcome.