NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – After pending in appeals courts for about a year, the defamation case of a sports announcer wrongly identified of using a racial slur is back underway and presumably preparing to go to jury trial. One of the defendants in the lawsuit — Gannett Co. on behalf of the Oklahoman — had filed a motion to dismiss the case, but this week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied the motion.
It was March of 2021 when a Norman High School girls basketball game gained national attention. A sportscaster used a racial slur against Norman’s Lady Tigers as they kneeled during the national anthem.
While announcer Matt Rowan eventually took ownership of making the remark, Scott Sapulpa filed a defamation lawsuit against multiple media entities alleging they misidentified him as the one who said it, claiming it caused great damage to his personal reputation and that of his workout sled company Pullman 360.
One of the case’s defendant’s, Gannett Co., filed a motion to dismiss the case about a year ago, but on Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied their motion, affirming a lower district’s decision to deny it.
“We’re obviously disappointed because we thought the motion had merit and could be useful in simplifying the case and getting down to the claims that are really at issue,” said Bob Nelon, an attorney for Gannett.
He told KFOR the news article that originally reported the slur was published by the Oklahoman, which is owned by Gannett. He said their appeals case asserted it should have been simply been Sapulpa versus Gannett, rather than Sapulpa and his business Pullman 360 against Gannett and The Oklahoman employees Cameron Jourdan and Nuria Martinez-Keel.
“For example, Nuria Martinez-Keel, who is a reporter for The Oklahoman, contributed to the article at issue only by gathering statements from public officials about the incident that was being reported on with the Norman High School basketball team,” Nelon said. “She didn’t have anything to do with the reporting involving the plaintiff Scott’s Sapulpa, but she’s named as a defendant in the suit because at one point in the evolving online story, she received a byline, and so she’s named as a defendant. Although she had no active role in the reporting, that’s at the core of the lawsuit. So, we were moving to dismiss her as a defendant because she really ought not to be in the lawsuit from our perspective.”
He also explained how the number of plaintiffs should have been simplified.
“We don’t believe that any of what we call the Pullman entities — the three business organizations that are plaintiffs — we don’t believe they have a claim against any of the defendants,” Nelon continued. “They were not named in the article, and we don’t believe there is any legal liability to them.”
KFOR reached out to Sapulpa’s attorney, Rusty Smith of Smith Barkett Law Group, for reaction to the state supreme court denying Gannett’s appeal.
“In August 2021, we defeated Gannett’s Motion to Dismiss after taking several depositions,” he responded. “Earlier this year the Court of Civil Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling, and earlier this week the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to accept the case for appellate review. The case will now proceed to jury trial in Muskogee County. We are now preparing for jury trial.”
Nelon said they’ll be doing the same.
“As the case continues on, we will have an opportunity to explain in greater detail the facts and how the law applies to those facts,” he said. “We believe that ultimately, when all the facts are known and the law is applied to the facts, we will prevail, and the public will understand why.”
The original case filed by Sapulpa is himself and his Pullman 360 entities vs. Gannett Co., Cameron Jourdan, Nuria Martinez-Keel, Matthew Rowan, NFHS Network, and CBS Sports.
Both sides of the case are scheduled to meet with a district court judge next week to set a pre-trial schedule.