Hall of Fame Quarterback Brett Favre’s defamation lawsuits could backfire


On Thursday February 9th, retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre filed three defamation lawsuits in Mississippi against fellow retired NFL players Shannon Sharpe and Pat McAfee, as well as against Mississippi State Auditor Shad White.[2] Favre has sued the three men over allegations that they made false and defamatory statements regarding his alleged involvement in the largest welfare fraud scandal in Mississippi state history.[3]

Favre is among the more than three dozen defendants named in a civil lawsuit by the Mississippi Department of Human Services over the misappropriation of over $77 million in public money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fund.[4] In particular, Favre has been linked to roughly $8 million in misspent welfare funds, $5 million of which he allegedly pushed to be used to build a volleyball center at the University of Southern Mississippi, his daughter’s college.[5]

While Favre has not been criminally charged and has publicly denied involvement in the scandal, he clearly believes that certain media personalities have gone too far in besmirching his name. Contained within his three complaints filed with the Circuit Courts of Lamar and Hands County, Mississippi, Favre claims that all three men made “egregiously false and defamatory statements” which they had “no basis” for making and “[knew] that they were false.”

Favre has taken great offense to particular statements made by Sharpe, McAfee, and White accusing him of stealing from the poor of Mississippi. In his complaints, he has cited Pat McAfee’s statement on his YouTube show that “Every time [Favre’s] name gets brought up, we have to mention that he tied the hands of the poor people and took money right out of their pockets,”[6] and Shannon Sharpe’s comments made on the Fox Sports show Undisputed that he “is taking money from the underserved [in Mississippi]” and “stole money from people that really needed that money”[7] as particularly malicious and defamatory statements that falsely accuse him of committing serious crimes. In his complaint against Shad White, Favre listed a litany of statements made by White that he believes were malicious and defamatory, and all part of an “attempt to leverage the media attention generated by Favre’s celebrity to further his own political career.”[8]

In his lawsuits Favre seeks to recover an unspecified amount of general damages against the three men for “injury to [his] character and reputation,” which Favre claims has diminished his ability to “generate income through endorsements, appearances at events of on radio and television programs, or hosting his own radio or television program.” In addition, Favre seeks to recover punitive damages against the three men, as he believes their actions and statements constitute malice.

In order for Favre to prevail on these defamation lawsuits, he must sufficiently establish that the statements made about him by Sharpe, McAfee, and White were both false and damaging to his reputation, and in order to prove actual malice he must also show that the men knew the allegations about Favre were false when they made them.[9] Doing so may prove problematic for Favre, as he seemed to acknowledge that he was redirected money intended for the poor of Mississippi when, at the request of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, he repaid the state $1.1 million he received for speaking engagements he did not perform.[10] Also, it is far from clear whether the allegedly defamatory statements of Sharpe, McAfee, and White independently caused damages to Favre, or were simply part of the cacophony of ridicule levied at the former quarterback after news of the scandal first broke.

To surmount these difficult legal hurdles, Favre alleged that Sharpe, McAfee, and White committed defamation per se. This category of defamation refers to false statements so obviously damaging to Favre’s reputation that they relieve him of having to prove damages. Falsely claiming that another person committed a crime is a commonly recognized category of defamation per se.[11]

The problem for Favre is that not only will he be facing a significant uphill battle in prevailing in these lawsuits, but he will be potentially opening himself up and exposing himself to additional legal troubles in relation to the ongoing civil suit against him by the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Any testimony he gives or documents he is required to produce in connection with these defamation lawsuits could potentially supply damning evidence against him.

[1] Picture: https://apnews.com/article/sports-legal-proceedings-scandals-brett-favre-mississippi-d0ae88cc6727fd74b4686fb09d9e7dcc

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35624974/brett-favre-sues-mississippi-state-auditor-shannon-sharpe-pat-mcafee-defamation

[4] https://apnews.com/article/sports-legal-proceedings-scandals-brett-favre-mississippi-d0ae88cc6727fd74b4686fb09d9e7dcc

[5] https://frontofficesports.com/brett-favre-sues-shannon-sharpe-pat-mcafee-for-defamation/

[6] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23605969-favre-mcafee-complaint?responsive=1&title=1

[7] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23605971-favre-shannon-sharpe-complaint?responsive=1&title=1

[8] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23605970-favre-shad-white-complaint

[9] https://frontofficesports.com/brett-favre-sues-shannon-sharpe-pat-mcafee-for-defamation/

[10] Id.

[11] https://apnews.com/article/sports-legal-proceedings-scandals-brett-favre-mississippi-d0ae88cc6727fd74b4686fb09d9e7dcc

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