Charles Oakley v. James Dolan: A Closer Look At Mutual Destruction

This week a federal judge dismissed a civil action filed by Charles Oakley against James Dolan and the Knicks.  This caught my attention because I didn’t know Oakley had filed a lawsuit against them.  I did recall Oak getting thrown out of a Knicks game for nebulous reasons a few years ago.  Now, with the dismissal, I thought we could do a little post-mortem of the actual lawsuit and what it tells us about Oak and the Knicks.

The Incident

On the night of February 8, 2017, the Knicks’ organizational futility was personified by a literal clash between its storied past in the form of Oakley and the current terrible management.  Oak was watching the game at MSG when security publicly and forcefully removed him from the Garden and had Oak arrested for fighting with security.  Apparently, the ejection came on direct orders from owner James Dolan.  Dolan banned Oakley from MSG and stated publicly that: “anybody drinking too much alcohol, looking for a fight, they’re going to be ejected and they’re going to be banned….Charles Oakley came into the Garden with an agenda. From the moment he stepped into the Garden, he began with this behavior. Abusive behavior, stuff you wouldn’t want to say on the radio. … It just accelerated and accelerated and accelerated.”

If one were cynical (or knew anything about Dolan as a person), a close reading of the interview would indicate that Oak was loudly dissing Dolan at the game and a sycophant told on Oakley, prompting the ejection.  Oakley denied having any alcohol that night and any charges were dropped by prosecutors in August 2017, when Oakley agreed not to appear at MSG for one year after the incident (ie February 2018).

The Lawsuit

In September 2017, Oakley filed a federal lawsuit against Dolan and the MSG companies.  The complaint goes through Oak’s storied Knicks career and has a section discussing Dolan’s poor record as owner, saying the “Knicks have unfortunately become a laughingstock” and referencing the Anucha Brown Sanders litigation to show that Dolan has exhibited a “pattern of retaliating against…former employees who refused to accept Defendant Dolan’s unlawful conduct [which] sadly repeated itself with Mr. Oakley.”

The interesting part of the complaint talks about the Dolan/Oakley relationship.  Oak’s complaint alleges:

-Oakley and Dolan never met personally until several years after Oak’s career ended (his career ended in 2004 and Dolan took control of the Knicks in about 1999, right after Oakley was traded for Marcus Camby).

-Oakley attempted to “bury the hatchet” with Dolan by setting up a meeting through Adam Silver but Dolan refused the entreaties.  The complaint does not explain but admits by implication that Oakley had been trashing the Knicks for years.

There is ample proof of this trashing.  In 2012, Oak complained the Knicks would not hire him for a job with the organization because “I’m hard on them.  I say, I’m not hard on them: that’s just the way the games goes and people have opinions….[Dolan] shouldn’t be mad at me because all I did was come before him and play the hardest and the best I could do. I’m going to be a Knick for life, though, no matter what people say.”  In 2015, Oakley told the Daily News that Dolan was a “mother—r” and “a bad guy.”  In 2016, the New York Times did an extensive feature on Oakley, describing him as a Knick in exile and having Oakley express disdain for Dolan but also professing to want to work out the dispute.

-Oakley maintained that he “does not know the source of Defendant Dolan’s animosity toward him.”  Nevertheless, Oakley complains that he “[h]as repeatedly been forced to purchase tickets to Knicks games out of his own pocket, whereas Defendant Dolan routinely treated countless other retired Knicks players to courtside seats.”

As for the incident, Oakley’s complaint says it went down this way:

-Oakley bought tickets to a game and was randomly sitting near Dolan (Oak allegedly had no idea where Dolan sits).

-Oakley said nothing to Dolan and was not intoxicated but, within minutes, security guards told him to leave without explanation.

-Oakley asked for an explanation and one of the guards asked why he was sitting so close to Dolan.

-Oakley refused to leave because he felt he had done nothing wrong and the guards physically grabbed him.  Oakley did resist but because he feared for his safety from the physical attack.  The Knicks Twitter account and Dolan both claimed Oakley was belligerent and threatened public safety.

-Oak claimed the statements by the Knicks on Twitter and by Dolan were defamatory and false.  Oakley then has a section of his complaint dedicated to past instances where Dolan accused critics of having substance abuse problems.

-The complaint then seeks redress for defamation, assault & battery, false imprisonment, abuse of process, and violation of the ADA (and analogous New York State laws).

The Case

The Judge, Richard Sullivan, seemed less than enthused by the case (or any of the parties) from the outset. The parties had fully briefed a motion to dismiss but wanted permission to file additional papers over the usual page limit.  Sullivan wrote in response to this request: “Although the Court is not at all persuaded that 40-page briefs are warranted, the parties seem determined to litigate this case extravagantly, and apparently have the time and resources to do so. Accordingly, the parties’ request for a 15-page extension is granted.  Nevertheless, because the Court remains concerned that the parties’  over-sized briefs will be tailored more to the court of public opinion than to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Court reminds the parties that their submissions shall be limited to argument and authorities relevant to the pending motion.”  One can infer from the letter that Sullivan was keenly aware that: (a) this pissing contest is probably a waste of time from a legal perspective and (b) the real fight relates to Oak or Dolan winning the PR contest.

Finally, Sullivan got to consider the motion to dismiss.  In their motions, the Dolan Team wanted the court to consider all sorts of extrinsic evidence, including footage of the incident and info on Oak’s website about a rehabilitation institute that Oakley is involved with.  The court refused to consider the evidence and only assessed the motion based upon whether Oak’s allegations, if true, gave rise to claims against the defendants.

The meat of the case, as correctly noted by the court, was whether the Dolan/MSG post-incident statements were defamatory.  The court found that Oakley “weaves together Defendants’ statements in a misleading fashion, joining statements as connected that were originally uttered at different times….”  Rather, the Dolan Team “never accused Oakley of causing physical injury to anyone” and that statements regarding his “abusive” behavior “do not give rise to the implication that Oakley committed assault.”   (In an ironic twist, Oakley cited to the case that Latrell Sprewell filed against the New York Post for defamation years ago but Sullivan found that the Sprewell case actually supported MSG’s argument to the contrary).

The court also found that calling Oak “abusive” was protected opinion and not defamatory in the context of this case because Oakley, as a public figure, must prove a higher threshold (clear and convincing evidence of actual malice in making a false statement) to make a claim.   In this case, Oakley had no proof of actual malice other than an allegation that “Dolan harbored a general animosity toward Oakley.”  General animosity, without specific proofs, was not enough to the court.

As to the claims that Oak was an alcoholic, the court found that Oakley never specifically alleged that Dolan and MSG knew he was not an alcoholic, a necessary element to prove defamation.  In that same vein, the court found that the statements by Team Dolan were not enough to show any monetary damages to Oak’s businesses either.

Oakley’s claims relating to assault, abuse of process, and the ADA were also dispatched.  The court noted that MSG has the right to eject anyone they want for pretty much any reason (a ticket is a revocable license and nothing more).  Oakley also attempted to amend his complaint to fix some of the technical problems it had but the court refused, noting that Oakley did not provide a new potentially better complaint or explain why another opportunity should be considered.

In summing up the case, Sullivan noted that “[f]rom its inception, this case has had the feel of a public relations campaign, with the parties seemingly more interested in the court of public opinion than the merits of their legal arguments.  That is perhaps understandable, given the personal nature of the dispute.  But while basketball fans in general, and Knicks fans in particular, are free to form their own opinions about who was in the right and whether Oakley’s ejection was motivated by something more than the whims of the team’s owner, the fact remains Oakley has failed to allege a plausible legal claim….”   Oakley has already filed a notice of appeal.

My Conclusions

Having been invited generally by Sullivan to draw our own conclusions, let’s do so.  Based upon everything above here is what I think:

-Dolan is a thin-skinned guy who does not like criticism about his organization and cannot brush things off as easily as most persons of his status are able to.

-Oakley pretty much criticizes everyone, at all times and is a tough guy to deal with physically and personally.  Here are some samples of Oak over the years and various beefs from before Dolan had him tossed in 2017:

June 29, 1988:  Oakley says the Bulls showed him no respect when they traded him to the Knicks.

December 2, 2000:  Oakley punches opposing player Jeff McInnis during warm ups.

April 6, 2001:  Oak physically intimidates opposing player Tyrone Hill in warm ups allegedly over a gambling debt (he actually slapped Hill on multiple occasions).

May 20, 2001:  Oakley complains when teammate Vince Carter goes to graduation hours before Game 7 of a series (Oak wasn’t the only teammate to criticize VC though).

December 25, 2001:  Oakley, brought in to be a vet leader on the Bulls, criticizes coach Tim Floyd and contributes in Floyd resigning (Floyd was 4-21 at the time).

February 21, 2012:  Oakley called Kevin Garnett “weak.”

April 6, 2014:  Oakley criticizes the current state of the NBA and analytics.

May 15, 2016:  Oakley revisits his old slap fight with Charles Barkley, tells Barkley to “stop talking shit.”

December 2, 2016:  Oakley disses the Warriors

-It’s not hard to envision that Oakley purposely bought a ticket near Dolan to create a stir.  Most New Yorkers know where Dolan’s regular seats are.  But there is no evidence that Oak did anything to merit ejection, other than looming over the failure that MSG has been for about 20 years.  One would think that Dolan would have had a  “don’t sell tickets to this guy” sign for Oakley if he had thought about it (not a Dolan strong suit).

-It was crazy and over kill to bring tons of security guards to eject Oak and it was done to make Oakley feel bad.  That being said, Oakley did not really have a right to fight back.  Once you are ejected, no matter the reason, you gotta go.  Oak’s only remedy was to get his money back for the tickets he bought.

– Oakley is a tough and beloved guy who is always a bit of a hard ass.  It was great as a player, less so when he gives cantankerous old man opinions about the Warriors and the NBA all the time.  In Oak’s defense, the urge to criticize the younger guys has existed since the beginning of history and Oakley is hardly the only guy to do so.  As for his criticisms of Dolan, Oak happens to be mostly right about MSG’s bad decision.  Oak did admit that his anger primarily stems from not being welcomed back in the organization.  That’s a fair point but the owner ain’t going to let you back in the fold when you add more criticism.  On the other hand, you could seek why Oakley doesn’t want to kiss Dolan’s butt like other players have to be treated well.  Just take all the former Knicks players who sit with Dolan during games and give off the aura of someone being held hostage or having dinner with someone they don’t want to be anywhere near.

-Dolan’s reaction to the Oakley criticism illustrates all of Dolan’s faults.  Dolan can’t help but act emotionally and personally.  If he wanted Oakley to shut up, he could’ve taken the meeting and gotten what he wanted.  But even if Dolan didn’t care about mending the relationship the 2017 ejection was a failure of a larger magnitude.  If Dolan didn’t want Oakley in MSG looming over him, the dumbest possible way to resolve this was by drawing maximum attention to the issue.  Dolan can’t think his way out of a paper bag.

-Oak’s lawsuit was mostly dumb.  The assault and ADA claims were bad on their face and took away from any potential defamation case.  If Oak wanted to win the case, the complaint should’ve been limited to defamation and had laser like focus on Dolan’s agenda against him.  Instead, the only specific complaint Oakley had was that Dolan would not comp Oak tickets.  Given what he’s done for the Knicks, Oak shouldn’t have to buy tickets to a Knicks game ever but that is not the type of thing that shocks judges or jurors to their cores.

-Dolan has definitely lost the PR battle.  NBA stars players are not particularly keen on signing with an owner who would treat a guy who gave blood to the franchise this way.  Dolan can rehab this issue (and is apparently trying with the signing of Leon Rose) but the lingering Oakley incident hurts them on the PR front (which Sullivan recognized in his order).

-The end of Sullivan’s order gives away his feelings on the larger subject (not the legal case).  Sullivan sort of implies that Oakley was thrown out based upon Dolan’s whims (had he felt Dolan’s explanation was equally plausible, Sullivan likely would have specifically rehashed Dolan’s allegations).

-But why does Oakley want to send the time and money just to humiliate Dolan?   Oakley’s tough guy persona is real but belies real sensitivity.  Oak’s different sides were well illustrated by Mike Wise and Frank Isola in, “Just Ballin’,” their 1999 book about Sprewell and the 1998-99 Knicks.  The beginning of the book is dedicated to the trade of Oakley for Camby.  Oak was/is a complicated guy: “For all of his bravado, style, and cocksure ways, Oakley was self-conscious about his appearance.  He would ask any reporter…after a game whether his latest fashion statement was working or was a faux pas.”  And Oakley was much nicer to the press than most players.  The book recounts how, when the 1997 All-Star game was in his hometown of Cleveland, Oak picked up the New York reporters in a limo and took them clubbing and then to his mother’s house for a home cooked meal.  The authors found the gesture genuine and not ingratiating, as Oakley never publicized it or sought thanks (in an another example of his kind side, Oakley recently also helped Jayson Williams get his life together from chronic alcoholism).

When Oakley was finally traded by the Knicks in June 1998, he reacted in his usual manner: “Oakley would not give the Knicks the satisfaction of knowing how badly it hurt.   Stubborn and proud as always, he mused, ‘Who do they have now that’s going to do the things I do?  I didn’t think our problem was power forward.  [Knicks GM Ernie] Grunfeld finally reached Oakley at 12:30 p.m. on the night of June 24 [to tell Oakley about the trade].  ‘I was like, ‘What?’ Ernie said, ‘We wanted to get younger.’ And I said, ‘You ain’t gotta say nothing to me.  Bye.’  Grunfeld tried to further explain the trade, but Oakley cut him off.  ‘If I’m traded, I’m traded. I’m no longer your commodity.’”

Oakley’s pride is understandable.  An attempted humiliation by Dolan and the franchise that he was so great for probably felt several orders more terrible than being traded for Camby (which was the Knicks’ best trade of the last few decades by the way).  This hurt is fueling litigation that is a waste of time and money.  Oakley really has two reasonable choices: (1) continue to relentlessly criticize Dolan and make him look bad or (2) pipe down and see if he can resolve the issue by back channels.   Oakley probably doesn’t want to beg Dolan to be treated like a former star usually is but those are the only choices until Dolan leaves town or has an epiphany about how normal and reasonable human interactions work.  The latter is possible since Leon Rose may understand this issue and convince Dolan to feign human emotions long enough to resolve this.  Dropping the appeal could spur a resolution to this silly feud.

Leave a Reply