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Ex-coach wrongly accused of making racist comments gets record $25m defamation payout

Former NBA point guard Ricky Rubio has signed for Barcelona (Simon Cooper/PA) (PA Archive)
Former NBA point guard Ricky Rubio has signed for Barcelona (Simon Cooper/PA) (PA Archive)

A former high school football coach was awarded a $25m payout after an Oklahoma jury ruled in his favour in a defamation case.

Scott Sapulpa had sued The Oklahoman, the state’s leading newspaper, after he was wrongly identified as the person who had referred to a high school basketball team by a racial slur when they kneeled for the national anthem.

In March 2021, Mr Sapulpa had been one of two announcers at a high school basketball game between Midwest City High School and Norman High School. During the playing of the national anthem, players on the Norman High School team took a knee, and Mr Sapulpa’s co-announcer, Matt Rowan — unaware his microphone was still live — went on a racist rant against them.

“They’re kneeling? F*** them. I hope Norman gets their ass kicked… ,” Mr Rowan was heard saying on a livestream before using a racist epithet.

In their initial reporting on the incident, The Oklahoman incorrectly identified Mr Sapulpa as the announcer who’d made the remarks.

Mr Rowan later admitted to being the person who used the slur, blaming the incident on a spike in his blood sugar.

“​​I will state that I suffer Type 1 Diabetes, and during the game, my sugar was spiking,” Mr Rowan said in a statement obtained by Sports Illustrated. “While not excusing my remarks, it is not unusual when my sugar spikes that I become disoriented and often say things that are not appropriate, as well as hurtful. I do not believe that I would have made such horrible statements absent my sugar spiking.”

Mr Sapulpa sued the newspaper for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress over the incident.

A jury in Muskogee County ruled that the newspaper had acted with actual malice, and awarded him $5m in actual damages and an additional $20m in punitive damages.

Lark-Marie Anton, a spokesperson for Gannett, which owns The Oklahoman, said they planned to appeal the ruling, the paper reported.

“There was no evidence presented to the jury that The Oklahoman acted with any awareness that what was reported was false or with any intention to harm the plaintiff in this case,” Anton said.