First basemen Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals and Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday sued Al Jazeera America and two of its reporters for libel, according to court filings, claiming the television network’s documentary on doping in sports erroneously and injuriously linked the pair to performance-enhancing drugs.
The two suits, filed separately in federal court in the District, deny that either baseball player has ever taken performance-enhancing drugs banned by Major League Baseball. The documentary claimed the PEDs were supplied by Charles Sly, the former pharmacy intern who served as the central source in Al Jazeera’s “The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers.”
An Al Jazeera spokesperson said the network had no comment on the suit.
In the program, which aired last month and further ensnared NFL legend Peyton Manning, an undercover Al Jazeera reporter extensively interviews Sly, who said he had known Zimmerman “probably six years” and that Zimmerman used Delta 2, a hormone supplement. He also linked Howard to Delta 2, which is banned by MLB.
“All of these statements concerning Mr. Zimmerman are categorically untrue,” the suit states. “Mr. Zimmerman has never taken Delta 2, human growth hormone, or any other steroid or other performance-enhancing substance banned by the MLB.”
The suit also said Zimmerman had not known Sly for six years, and that Zimmerman “has never received any banned substances” from Sly.
Howard’s suit contains similarly strong language and sweeping denials of ever using banned PEDs.
“I have always taken pride in my personal conduct,” Zimmerman, who has not spoken publicly about the report, said in a statement. “While I am not a litigious person, I felt it was necessary to file this suit to restore my reputation and to hold Al Jazeera accountable for its actions. The suit speaks for itself, and I have no plans to discuss this any further.”
Both suits say that Al Jazeera and the reporters, Liam Collins and Deborah Davies, were “well aware that these statements are untrue and defamatory, and have shown reckless disregard for this fact” and that the report caused each player “personal humiliation and mental anguish, permanent damage to his reputation as a person, professional athlete, and businessman.” Each seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Sly has since recanted his statements in the Al Jazeera report.
The move by Zimmerman and Howard is perhaps unprecedented in American sport – accused athletes suing a media company for claiming they used PEDs. By filing suit, Zimmerman and Howard open themselves up to a discovery process in which they could be asked to make the same statements under oath.
Legal experts, though, consider such a case difficult to win, particularly for public figures, who must prove not only that the reports were untrue, but that the news organization knew that and proceeded recklessly. Both suits cite communications between representatives for Zimmerman and Howard and Al Jazeera prior to the airing of the documentary.
Also on Tuesday, a New York Times report provided a potential link between Sly and Howard, Zimmerman and other athletes named in the Al Jazeera report – Jason Riley, a Florida athletic trainer and strength coach who ran a Tampa workout facility that listed Zimmerman and Howard as clients on its Web site. According to the Florida Department of Health, when Sly was issued a license as a pharmacist intern in Florida in July 2012, he listed the same address as Riley.
Riley also founded a nutritional supplement company, Elementz Nutrition, with Sly and another investor. In a 2011 interview in Men’s Journal, football player Dustin Keller, named in the Al Jazeera report, said he worked with “Jason Riley and Charlie Sly of Elementz Nutrition to start mapping out nutrition, supplementation, training sessions and recovery sessions.”
According to the Times, Zimmerman’s photo on the Elementz Nutrition Web site disappeared last week, and the company closed. Riley did not return a message seeking comment. Zimmerman’s representatives declined comment on the report.
Staff writer James Wagner contributed to this report.