This paper discusses the media's treatment of athletes and sports figures. Although the main focus of this paper analyzes professional athletes, cases involving professional coaches and owners are also presented. Professional athletes and coaches utilize media attention to further their career. On the other hand it seems inconsistent for these same athletes and coaches to attack media coverage as defamatory. Almost every court addressing the issue has determined that professional sports personnel are public figures (Hall). Because of potential counter claims, the cost of prosecuting a law suit, proving actual malice and falsity of the statements that are being questioned, athletes rarely file defamation claims against the media. The New York Times Actual Malice Standard protects opinions, fair comment and the neutral reporting privilege, and proof of falsity of the statements (Heumann). Professional athletes are the subject of increasing media attention. In addition to high profile reporting of their off-field activities, the performance of professional athletes is constantly debated among fans and the media. This type of debate is intertwined in the professional sports culture and constant scrutiny by the media and fans is a reality of professional sports. This negative attention and debate is the price an athlete pays for his or her popularity and career as a member of the professional sports field.
Commentary about an athlete's abilities can be quite harsh. For example, a Dallas sports radio talk show host, while recently discussing two former Dallas Maverick basketball players, stated that "Sam Cassel was a "ball hog," and that Jason Kidd is "played out" as a point guard (The Sports brothers). Based upon this example, it is apparent that professional athletes are not pampered, at least not by the media. Commentary and debate about an athlete's abilities, however, is not defamatory and it is very difficult for professional athlete to prove defamation.