LIV’s Patrick Reed Sues Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee for Defamation

LIV golfer Patrick Reed sued the Golf Channel and commentator Brandel Chamblee in Texas on Tuesday, saying they have defamed him, including by asserting he’s “purely playing for blood money” in the Saudi-backed league. This comes a week after a federal judge in California denied three LIV golfers’ petition to play in the FedEx Cup while suspended from the PGA Tour.

Reed, the 2018 Masters Champion who joined LIV Golf in June, demands a minimum of $750 million in damages. His complaint, authored by attorney and political activist Larry Klayman, attempts to justify this hefty figure by claiming that Reed has lost “multiple multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals” and suffered “emotional distress.” These alleged harms stem from what is described as a “defamatory agenda” engineered to “inflict severe damage” on Reed and other LIV golfers.

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Like other tour golfers who bolted for LIV, Reed was suspended for violating his membership obligations. The PGA Tour contends it possesses the contractual right to bar golfers from playing in a rival league. In support of the tour’s position in the FedEx Cup petition, Judge Beth Lasbon Freeman drew on case law involving tennis and rodeo participants who were similarly denied a chance to play in two rival leagues.

As Klayman tells it, the Golf Channel has “billions of reasons to continue to maliciously defame” LIV golfers since the channel “has highly lucrative contracts with the PGA Tour.” The channel is supposedly “fearful that another major network will acquire the rights to broadcast and cover LIV tournaments and events and compete.” The ensuing competition could then draw “away advertising and substantial revenue” from the Golf Channel.

The complaint lists numerous on-air statements that are portrayed as defamatory, meaning the statements are an untrue assertion of fact as opposed to opinion. During a podcast, Chamblee is quoted saying, “So if [Reed and other LIV golfers are] aligning themselves with a tyrannical, murderous leader… if you look at who [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] is… centralizing power, committing all these atrocities, you look at what he’s doing to the citizens of his… of his country ask yourself, I mean would you have played for Stalin would you have played for Hitler would you have played for Mao would you play for Pol Pot . . . would you have played for Putin… which… and this who this guy is. He settles disputes with bonesaws.”

The complaint contends this statement is defamatory because “Mr. Reed never aligned himself with a tyrannical, murderous leader.” Instead, he is “playing golf for LIV, which simply happens to be financed by the [Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia].”

The complaint similarly takes issue with a quote attributed to Chamblee saying that LIV golfers are “destroying the professional game” of golf and have “tainted their legacy in irreparable way.” In response, Klayman writes, “Mr. Reed is not destroying the game of golf—he simply chose to play for another league . . . [his] legacy is also not tainted simply because he chose to play for another league.”

Reed and other golfers are accused as being “greedy, self-serving and willfully blind,” which Klayman  describes as “false, malicious, and defamatory.” Klayman contends that depiction “creates the implication that Mr. Reed is greedy and solely driven by money, and is willing to sacrifice everything he stands for in order to make money.” Klayman further maintains that Chamblee “has shown himself to be a disciple of the ‘Skip Bayless’ school of sports analysis—the fundamental tenet of which is that it is more important to be loud than it is to be correct.”

Attorneys for the Golf Channel and Chamblee will have an opportunity to answer the complaint and motion for its dismissal.

An immediate legal hurdle for Reed is that alleged defamatory content arguably consists of statements that are either true or, if not, consist of opinion rather than fact.

For example, when Reed claims that a reference to him benefiting from “Saudi blood money” is defamatory, a counterargument is that “Saudi blood money” could be considered accurate given the Saudi regime’s brutal murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. Even if that statement isn’t “true,” it appears to be a subjective or exaggerative description of funding for LIV Golf. Stated differently, there’s no way of measuring the veracity of “Saudi blood money” since it’s a qualitative, rather than quantitative, assessment.

Likewise, Reed allegedly “destroying the game of golf” appears to be a statement of opinion. Reed is obviously not capable of eliminating the sport. To the extent he and other LIV golfers are changing the sport’s operation at the pro level, some will like those changes and others won’t. Either way, the outcome involves differences of opinion, not factual assertions.

Indeed, Klayman, who is the founder of Freedom Watch and who has been called “the One Man Tea Party,” has himself previously commented negatively on LIV’s emergence. In February, he tweeted, “Greg Norman’s Correlation With the Murderous Wahabe Muslim Saudis Is Despicable but the PGA Tour Cannot Legally Ban Players From Taking Their Blood Money!” Four months later, Klayman sued the tour alleging antitrust violations in its competition with LIV.

The First Amendment is relevant. It protects the sharing of opinions, including so-called “hot takes” on social media, so long as they do not contain factually untrue remarks. Commentators like Skip Bayless—to use Reed’s own example—are legally protected when offering bold or outrageous viewpoints. These commentators only run afoul of the law when they make a factual claim that is untrue.

As Sportico recently detailed, MLB agent Casey Close is suing radio host Doug Gottlieb over Gottlieb’s tweet asserting Close never told his client, Freddie Freeman, about an offer from the Atlanta Braves. Close argues this claim, which Gottlieb offered as a statement of fact, is untrue. Reed, in contrast, is arguably focused on critical depictions of him that lack the same objective qualities.

To counter that potential defect, Klayman maintains that some of the statements said about Reed constitute defamation per se, meaning statements so egregious they automatically qualify as defamation. Under Texas law, defamation per se consists of words that “are so obviously harmful to the person aggrieved, that no proof of their injurious effect is necessary to make them actionable.” Classic examples include falsely claiming someone committed a crime or falsely claiming they have a sexually transmitted disease. It’s not clear that linking Reed to MBS or the Saudi government counts, especially when that same government is involved in the league’s funding.

Reed’s ability to prove that the Golf Channel and Chamblee are responsible for damages, let alone $750 million in damages, is also uncertain. The defendants can argue that to the extent Reed was harmed by lost endorsement deals, he only has himself to blame. Reed, like other LIV Golfers, arguably knew or should have known that by joining a new, foreign funded league that is at odds with the tour, companies who pay him to help sell their products or services would reconsider those deals. To the extent Reed has a claim over a lost endorsement deal, he might have recourse against a company if it breached a contract. Further, Golf Channel and Chamblee might contend, it’s not clear that Reed is worse off financially. LIV and its golfers have boasted of lucrative deals and high-paying arrangements that are superior to those offered by the PGA Tour.

Reed, known on the golf circuit as “Mr. America,” also faces the likely hurdle of being deemed a public figure. In defamation lawsuits, public figures must not only prove a statement is untrue and reputationally harmful, but also that it was made with knowledge of being false or reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false. Chamblee might insist everything he said he believed to be true, based on the information that was available to him at the time he made those statements.

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