Who Is Public Figure?

You may have heard about this case, Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams vs. the NCAA and others. Cottrell and Williams are suing for big bucks, claiming they were harmed by the NCAA. Part of the NCAA defense is that Cottrell and Williams are "public figures."

This is not to be a legal treatise. The distinction of former Alabama football assistant coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams being "public figures" would mean, in laymen terms, that it would be more difficult for Cottrell and Williams to collect from the NCAA because as public figures -- as opposed to just regular everyday Joes -- there would have to be proof that the NCAA had malice towards them.

I'm not sure what a public figure is. Years ago I was mad about something a radio talk show host said about me. I had a tape of the show in which I was (to my mind) clearly slandered/libeled, and I could prove that what the host said about me was false. An attorney friend told me I couldn't win because I would be considered a public figure.

Well if I am a public figure, then who isn't?

Yesterday some lawyers from the NCAA came to my office to get copies of ‘BAMA Magazine articles mentioning Williams and Cottrell as part of their ammunition to prove the two former coaches are public figures. I don't think I helped them much. There were precious few references to and/or interviews with either considering their time here.

I asked the lawyer what the legal definition of a public figure is. This lawyer (who, by the way, is an Alabama fan and who has been to Alabama games with me) is not going to be involved in the trial. And he is a very good lawyer. But he admitted he didn't know the current legal definition, that he would have to research that. That was reasonable.

The lawyer said, "I think an Alabama assistant coach is a public figure."

I said, "Alabama has nine assistant coaches. Can you name five of them?"

He didn't name any, but said, "I could, because I'm an Alabama fan."

So, I thought, if an Alabama assistant coach is known to Alabama fans, is that enough to make him a public figure?

The lawyer continued. "Don't you think an assistant coach is a public figure?"

"No," I said. "I think the head football coach is a public figure. I think more people know Mike Shula is the head football coach at Alabama than know Bob Riley is the governor of the state of Alabama. But I don't think an assistant coach is a public figure."

(Incidentally, when we were searching the photo files of the Associated Press and Getty, which do a pretty good job of photo coverage, we could not find a photograph of Cottrell. The photo accompanying this article was taken by the late Jay Lisby in 2003.)

My thinking continued: If an Alabama assistant coach is a public figure, then if Alabama's coaching staff was in the courtroom for the upcoming trial, wouldn't it be reasonable that the coaches would all be recognizeable to the jury? My guess is that not one juror could identify all nine assistants. In fact, most probably would not be able to identify more than one or two. And it wouldn't surprise me if 12 jurors between them were unable to identify one assistant coach. But we'll never know that.

I also thought, if Alabama's assistant coaches are public figures, then Auburn's assistant coaches must be public figures, too. I'm a pretty savvy college football fan and I could name only three or four Auburn assistant coaches. And I wouldn't know any of them if I met them. That hardly seems to fit the definition of public figure. Even allowing for Auburn having far less status than Alabama, that seems to work in favor of Cottrell and Williams.

Where, if anywhere, does public figure begin and end? If an assistant coach is a public figure in Tuscaloosa, does that public figure status extend to, oh, say, Indianapolis, Indiana, where he can be defamed as a public figure?

Maybe the NCAA thinks they can do harm to an assistant coach and then because that assistant coach sues them, he becomes known so well as to become a public figure.

All-in-all, my feeling is that it's a shady way to get out of paying the penalty for damaging someone, to beat the rap on the technicality that the victim is a public figure, and particularly if the "public figure" status is by definition that is contrary to common sense.

Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams are not public figures by any common sense standard.

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