A former high school football coach in Oklahoma was awarded $25 million in damages after a jury concluded that the state’s largest newspaper intentionally harmed him when it wrongfully identified him as the high school sports announcer who hurled racist remarks at players.
Scott Sapulpa had sued The Oklahoman for incorrectly identifying him as the announcer who had made the racist slurs.
In March 2021, Mr Sapulpa was 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 of 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, The Independent reported.
“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.
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 state newspaper for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress over the incident.
In Muskogee County, a jury determined that the newspaper had shown actual malice, resulting in a verdict of $5 million in actual damages and an extra $20 million in punitive damages.
Lark-Marie Anton, a spokesperson for Gannett, which owns The Oklahoman, said they planned to appeal the ruling.
“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.