Agent Casey Close sued Fox Sports radio host Doug Gottlieb for libel Thursday, alleging that Gottlieb “falsely and recklessly” defamed Close and Excel Sports Management in a tweet that claimed they had not presented a contract offer to star first baseman Freddie Freeman during free agency, according to a complaint filed in a New York court.
The lawsuit details Close’s negotiations with the Atlanta Braves, the team with which Freeman had spent his career before signing a six-year, $162 million free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in March. On June 29, Gottlieb tweeted: “Casey Close never told Freddie Freeman about the Braves final offer, that is why Freeman fired him” — an allegation the complaint says is false and has prompted death threats toward Close and tens of millions of dollars in damages to Close and Excel.
In a statement, Close said: “Although we gave Mr. Gottlieb an opportunity to retract his false statement, he failed to do so. The Complaint sets the record straight as to what occurred during the negotiations with the Atlanta Braves.”
Gottlieb and his lawyer, John Tehranian, did not return messages from ESPN seeking comment.
On March 29, according to the complaint, Atlanta offered a five-year, $110 million contract to Freeman, the five-time All-Star who had spent 15 years in the Braves’ organization. Freeman rejected that offer as well as an Aug. 1 offer of five years and $125 million and a five-year, $135 million extension Aug. 4, according to the complaint.
Freeman reached free agency after helping lead the Braves to a World Series title. Their final discussions on a potential deal took place March 12, according to the complaint, when Close proposed two potential offers — previously reported as six years for $175 million or five years for $165 million — to the Braves. The team, the complaint said, rejected both, and after Close sought an offer to bring to Freeman and was told the Braves would not give one, Close “immediately communicated the final conversation to Freeman.”
Days after Freeman returned to Atlanta on June 24 with the Dodgers, Freeman fired Close, according to the complaint.
In a statement, Close and Excel’s attorneys, Mitch Schuster and Kevin Fritz, said: “Doug Gottlieb’s statement — Casey Close, a respected member of the sports agent community for over 30 years, did not communicate a contract offer to a client — is not only wholly false, but also is an attack on the character of Mr. Close and his highly reputable agency, Excel Sports Management. Such reckless misconduct by Mr. Gottlieb will not be tolerated.”
Libel is the formal term for written defamation, and the standard in the United States depends on whether the person who has allegedly been defamed is a public or private figure. The standard for public figures — a broad term for people who are known in the public domain — is far higher. The complaint says Close, a former New York Yankees minor leaguer who has negotiated billions of dollars in contracts over a 30-year career as an agent, is a private figure.
If his private-figure status is upheld by a court in the Southern District of New York, Close would need to prove Gottlieb’s statement was false and made with negligence. For public figures, the threshold is that the defendant published the statement with “actual malice,” or, as the Supreme Court defined, “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
A former college basketball player and ESPN analyst, Gottlieb, 46, did not contact Close or Excel seeking comment before his tweet, according to the complaint. Close and Excel requested a retraction of Gottlieb’s tweet, the complaint said, “but he has failed to do so.”