Charles Oakley v. James Dolan; Is There a Case?

On Wednesday, February 8, the already disappointing season for the New York Knicks took an even uglier turn.  Former player and fan favorite, Charles Oakley was forcibly removed from Madison Square Garden (“MSG”), arrested and charged with three counts of assault stemming out of an altercation he had with MSG security officials during the Knicks-Clippers game.  Accordingly to Oakley, he was in his seat for about “four minutes” before a team of security personnel came over and told him they were on orders to remove him from MSG.  Oakley can be seen shoving different security guards and was eventually taken to the ground and removed from the building.  Even more amazing was the fact that Knicks owner and Executive Chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, James Dolan, was seated only a few feet away from Oakley during the incident.  It is no secret that Dolan is despised by Knick fans. Coupled with the fact that the Knicks have been an embarrassment on the court for over a decade, fans are outraged as to what they perceive to be his lack of hands on involvement in the team.  He rarely gives interviews and rarely makes any public statements concerning the team’s performance.  However, every once in a while Dolan will surface and make an appearance usually on local New York sports radio.  On February 10, Dolan sat down for an interview on the Michael Kay Show to discuss the Oakley incident. 

Knick fans are well aware that there has been a history of bad blood between Oakley and Dolan over the years.  Since Oakley’s departure from the Knicks in the late 1990s, he has been very vocal about the Knicks lack of success and has not minced words about his feelings for Dolan.  Oakley’s forcible removal from the game on February 8th was seen by many as Dolan exerting his power over his former player.  During Dolan’s interview on the Michael Kay Show, he made some odd comments about Oakley, stating that he “may have a problem with alcohol.”  Dolan continued throughout the interview intimating that Oakley has a problem with alcohol and he was presumably removed from MSG because he was inebriated.  He went onto state that Oakley’s behavior was “abusive” and that he was removed because MSG’s top priority is to provide a safe environment for the fans.  Oakley quickly fired back at Dolan during subsequent interviews which led Dolan to impose a complete ban on Oakley from ever entering MSG again (as of this afternoon there are reports that the ban has been lifted).

Dolan’s public comments about Oakley led some in the legal profession to believe that he may have a cause of action for defamation against Dolan.  Under New York law, the plaintiff must establish four elements in order to prove defamation: (1) False Statement; (2) Published to a third party without privilege or authorization; (3) With fault amounting to at least negligence (actual malice); (4) That caused special harm or defamation per se.  See Dillion v. City of New York, 261 A.D.2d. 34, 38 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. 1999).  Michael McCann, a legal expert for Sports Illustrated, said that Oakley may have a case for defamation but the most difficult hurdle for him to overcome would be to establish the “actual malice threshold—he would need to prove that Dolan knew or should have known his remarks about Oakley were untrue.”  During his interview on the Michael Kay Show, Dolan can be seen repeatedly looking down at notes he (or presumably his attorneys) had prepared while discussing the incident.  McCann in his article notes that Dolan used the phrase, “ [Oakley] may have a problem with alcohol.”  The word may is quite a distinction from an affirmative statement, i.e. he is an alcoholic, which would make a significant difference in a court of law.

In addition to Dolan’s verbal statements, the Knicks organization released a statement as well in which they blame Oakley for the incident.  “Oakley came to the game tonight and behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner…we hope he gets some help soon.”  If Oakley is able to show that Dolan and the Knicks organization were referring to helping him regarding his alcohol abuse (a claim that Oakley has repeatedly refuted and of which there is no credible evidence), rather than helping him say, be a better fan, he would have a stronger legal claim according to McCann.      

While Oakley will likely never bring a suit against Dolan, if he were able to cross the actual malice threshold, he could presumably have a legal claim in court.  However, I am pleased to say that as of this afternoon, it was announced that the lifetime ban on Oakley has been lifted thanks to the intervention of NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver.  Ultimately, even if Dolan’s claims are true, in the court of public opinion, Oakley will always come out on top. 

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