MUSKOGEE — Nearly three years after one of the worst days of his life, Scott Sapulpa left the Muskogee County District Courthouse late this afternoon vindicated in his claim that The Oklahoman defamed him when one of their reporters misidentified him as the speaker of a racial slur during a high school basketball game broadcast in 2021.
After five and a half hours of deliberation, the jury announced it had reached a partial verdict around 4:45 p.m. when the courthouse was mostly empty and staff had locked the building. Still, the 10 or so observers who filled Judge Jeffrey Payton’s courtroom were greeted by smiles from jurors who announced they had found for Sapulpa on both civil counts: defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The jury found that Sapulpa had sustained $5 million in actual damages and found enough evidence to assess punitive damages against Gannett, one of the nation’s largest media companies, which absorbed The Oklahoman in 2019. Jurors are set to return Monday to hash out a number on the punitive damages, which are awarded in an effort to dissuade future actions by the same defendant or others.
“We’re encouraged,” said Michael Barkett, one of Sapulpa’s attorneys. “Ready to come back Monday.”
During Friday’s deliberation, attorneys for both parties meandered about the courthouse hallways, anxiously chatting with one another or the one alternate juror who stayed to hear the verdict.
Earlier in the day, Barkett framed the case as a David and Goliath story — the small-town football coach from Hulbert versus one of the largest newspaper companies in the nation. Barkett asked the jury to award Sapulpa $20 million.
“This is a case involving a huge, mega media conglomerate company with the power to defame a local man,” Barkett told jurors. “We see the disparity between the power and the powerless.”
Bob Nelon, the lead attorney representing The Oklahoman, had argued that some of the social media backlash Scott Sapulpa faced stemmed from his perceived silence when his broadcast partner went on a racist rant about Norman High School girls basketball players kneeling during the national anthem. Testifying earlier this week, Sapulpa maintained that he confronted Rowan after the incident, but that audio was not captured by the broadcast.
“He can’t disassociate himself from the true fact he was part of a broadcast team who used racist language,” Nelon said.
By reaching its verdict, the jury ultimately decided The Oklahoman published a “false or malicious” writing that subjected Sapulpa to “public hatred, contempt, (or) ridicule,” the statutory definition of libel in Oklahoma.
National scandal at an Oklahoma high school game
In March 2021, less than a year after protests about George Floyd’s murder swept the nation, local broadcast company owner Matt Rowan asked Scott Sapulpa to fill in and help him announce high school basketball tournament games being held at Sapulpa High School. A descendent of Chief Sapulpa, the namesake of the town, Scott Sapulpa testified that he quickly agreed to help Rowan.
On March 11, during Norman High’s game against Midwest City, some members of the NHS team kneeled during the national anthem. During the livestream that Rowan was producing for his now-defunct company OSPN, he unleashed a rant that ultimately went viral.
“They’re kneeling? Fuck them. I hope Norman gets their ass kicked,” Rowan said.
Sapulpa asked about the kneeling: “Are you serious?”
After clarifying team uniform colors, Rowan continued.
“Fuck them. I hope they lose. Come on Midwest City,” Rowan said. “They’re going to kneel like that? Hell with them. They even saluting the flag? Some of them aren’t. Fucking n*****s.”
The next day, The Oklahoman published its article about the incident around 11 a.m. At 12:37 p.m., sports reporter Cameron Jourdan updated his article to identify Scott Sapulpa as the speaker of the racial slur. Within a matter of minutes, some readers commented that they believed someone else had made the remarks, but Jourdan and The Oklahoman’s editors did not remove his name until 3:05 p.m.
At 5:35 p.m., the article was updated to identify Rowan, who released a statement claiming that blood sugar issues had prompted his outburst.
‘The Oklahoman seems to think it was you’
In testimony Tuesday, Sapulpa said the hot mic incident happened when there was some confusion about whether he had turned his microphone off.
An excerpt of Sapulpa’s video-recorded deposition testimony was played to the jury, in which Sapulpa said he turned to Rowan after his rant and admonished him.
“‘Dude, what the hell,’” Sapulpa claimed he asked Rowan. “And he looked and he said something — not word for word — ’F-ing them.’ I told him, ‘You shit.’ It was wrong what he did.”
Sapulpa testified that, after the game, he thought the exchange might not have been broadcast, but the next morning he saw a post of it on Twitter. At that time, Rowan began texting him. Phone records entered as evidence also showed several phone calls Rowan had made to Sapulpa.
Eight minutes after The Oklahoman updated its online story falsely naming Sapulpa, a barrage of hate-filled text messages began to reach Sapulpa’s phone.
With Sapulpa on the witness stand Tuesday, some text messages and tweets were read aloud and displayed for the jury:
- “Racist fucker”
- “Racist trash. Pls kill yourself.”
- “You a fucking loser.”
- “You racist piece of shit fuck you I hope your kids get als.”
- “Your parents raised a bitch.”
One text referenced Sapulpa’s job at Hulbert Public Schools: “You need to be fired and never accepted into any job again.”
Sapulpa replied: “It wasn’t me. I wasn’t the only one there.”
“Well, the Oklahoman seems to think it was you,” the texter responded. “Good enough for me you dumb ass country bumpkin.”
After the texts continued — more than 70 of which were introduced as evidence during the trial — Sapulpa said he then texted Rowan, “Dude, u need to fix this.”
“I will,” Rowan replied, according to another text message introduced at the trial.
“The news is throwing my name ‘round like it was me. They’re sending messages. Dude I’m getting hate mail messages like crazy. Now they’re talking about my kids,” Sapulpa texted Rowan.
“Call me,” Rowan texted back. Sapulpa testified that he didn’t respond and has not talked with Rowan since.
“I don’t want anything to do with him,” Sapulpa testified. “I think he wanted someone else to go down with him.”
‘I didn’t trust the media at all’
Sapulpa broke into tears when testifying Tuesday about one particular social media post from a former high school player he had coached, who said he was disappointed in his former mentor.
In the hours after The Oklahoman misidentified him, Sapulpa said some Twitter posts publicized his phone number and email, leading to his doxing — the revealing on social media of an individual’s private information in order to generate and direct public wrath toward them.
Sapulpa said that if The Oklahoman’s Cameron Jourdan texted him to ask whether he had been the announcer making the racist comments, he would have responded. But he said he never received any text from Jourdan. Then, after the story went viral, Sapulpa declined to reply to media attempts to contact him.
“I didn’t trust the media at all at that point,” Sapulpa testified. “I assumed they read it, the article The Oklahoman put out and wanted a comment.”
Lost job, business and professional associations
Sapulpa said he believes he lost his job at Hulbert Public Schools because of the story. He said he quit his duties as head football coach after a disappointing season in the fall of 2020, but he expected to be retained as a teacher at his alma mater the next year.
After The Oklahoman’s story, the Hulbert Superintendent Jolyn Choate issued a statement that one of the two announcers was an employee, without identifying Sapulpa by name, and announced he’d been placed on administrative leave.
“While it has been reported incorrectly that our employee was the announcer who said racist language, our employee should have stood up for the students and contested the racist language from the other announcer and the hate and intolerance it represents,” Choate wrote.
Sapulpa testified the newspaper story also caused him to lose his company, Pullman 360, a side business he had established in 2018 using funds from his teacher’s retirement account to build and sell workout sleds to football teams, including the University of Oklahoma.
He said he was also asked by USA Football, a program which operates youth football camps around the country, to remove any social media mention that Sapulpa had coached with them.
Six months after the story, Sapulpa was hired by Pawhuska Public Schools as an after-school coordinator and was recently named girls softball coach. Pawhuska coach Matt Hennessey testified Sapulpa had previously been his assistant football coach before taking the job at Hulbert.
After the news story when Sapulpa was without a job, the Pawhuska principal hired him to be the after-school coordinator, but they could not have him serve in a higher profile position like a coach, Hennessey testified.
‘Scott’s not the same guy’
Hennessey testified the March 2021 incident changed Sapulpa from an outgoing and happy man to one who rarely leaves his house.
“Even to this day, Scott’s not the same guy. He doesn’t want to be in public much. That’s exactly the opposite of who he was,” Hennessey said.
Other coaches and school athletic officials, including Broken Arrow associate athletic director Alton Lusk, told jurors it would be difficult to hire Sapulpa because it would create too much controversy, even though they knew Sapulpa had been falsely accused.
“There would be some backlash. There would be people who know Scott and know he didn’t say that, but on the other hand there would be some people who don’t know. So, for me, I wouldn’t recommend him (for hire), personally,” Lusk said. “Until this is all resolved and his name cleared up, I wouldn’t hire Scott Sapulpa. This will be a red flag for him, probably for a long time.”
One witness brought a chuckle from jurors on Monday. Assistant Muskogee High School football coach Anthony McNac, who previously coached there with Sapulpa, testified he knew The Oklahoman had identified the wrong man when he heard the voice on the video clip spread on social media because it sounded nothing like Sapulpa’s.
“Scott Sapulpa talks with a twang. He sounds like Boomhauer,” McNac said, referring to the King of the Hill animated television series character Jeff Boomhauer.
‘That whole day is pretty much a blur’
Wednesday morning picked up with the rest of Sapulpa’s testimony. Bob Nelon, the attorney for The Oklahoman, questioned Sapulpa on the details of when he found out the paper had incorrectly named him as the speaker of a racial slur spoken on a hot mic.
“I don’t know,” Sapulpa said. “That whole day is pretty much a blur to me.”
Sapulpa testified he was so traumatized by the event he fled to a remote cabin near Hulbert and convinced his ex-wife to bring him a gun alongside food and clothing.
Nelon then moved on to questioning Sapulpa on why he didn’t reach out to any media outlets to clear his name. The jury was shown text messages from multiple news reporters to which Sapulpa never responded.
Sapulpa defended his decision, citing his distrust of the media after being falsely identified.
He also testified that he understood Hulbert Public Schools’ decision to not rehire him.
“Kids are No. 1. Take care of kids first,” Sapulpa said. “They didn’t have a choice.”
During the cross examination, Sapulpa was also asked about his mental state after the incident.
“I wasn’t worried about me until you guys put my name out,” Sapulpa said.
When asked if he felt any guilt for being an announcer alongside Matt Rowan, Sapulpa maintained he did not.
“I felt sorry for the kids, that’s it,” Sapulpa said.
Defense calls psychology expert, Hulbert superintendent
James “Jim” Scott, a University of Oklahoma professor specializing in neuropsychology, was the defense’s first witness. He testified that he had reviewed Sapulpa’s psychological tests and that his scores were “below average,” indicating that he did not have depression or anxiety.
However, on cross examination, Scott admitted to never having met Sapulpa before that day, that the tests were administered by another doctor, and that he believed being falsely identified as a racist would be stressful.
Sapulpa’s attorneys claimed he underreported his symptoms in his responses on the psychological tests.
Next, the defense called Choate, the Superintendent of Hulbert Public Schools and Sapulpa’s former boss. She testified that the school district was inundated with messages after the news broke, but that the school district immediately realized the speaker of the slurs was not Sapulpa after hearing the voice.
“That’s not Scott,” Choate said was her first reaction to hearing the audio.
But after calls started coming into the district, she had the district’s Facebook page shut down and issued a public statement that also went out as a robocall to parents explaining the situation and announcing Sapulpa was on administrative leave.
When asked why his contract was not renewed, Choate said “because we knew he wasn’t going to be head football coach at the middle school or high school.” She said she needed to hire a new head football coach since Sapulpa had resigned his coaching position at the end of the previous season.
When directly asked on cross examination what she had said to Sapulpa after he described the incident to her, she said, “you did nothing.”
She also indicated the district would not consider rehiring Sapulpa.
“It doesn’t look good,” she said.
‘I can’t think of a news agency that did not try to contact me’
The final witness Wednesday was Matt Rowan, the actual speaker of the slur. Rowan now lives in Fort Gibson, is self employed and owns a locksmith company. He owned OSPN between 2019 and 2021, the streaming service focused on football and basketball which aired the broadcast.
Rowan testified he was “good friends” with Sapulpa for “probably 15 years or better” and that he’d filled in on broadcasts for him before. He later noted he had not spoken to Sapulpa since the day after the incident.
When asked his reaction to the incident, Rowan bluntly stated, “you heard my reaction,” before later clarifying that “poor choice of words is what caused that.”
Rowan testified that “it deeply offended me they’d kneel during the national anthem” and that he immediately knew the audio had likely been picked up by a microphone because he was also working production. But he also said he was not entirely sure until the OSSAA called him the next day.
“I got 3,000 or better phone calls that day,” Rowan recalled. “I can’t think of a news agency that did not try to contact me.”
Rowan also told a very different story about his friendship with Sapulpa.
“We were best friends, we talked about everything,” Rowan testified.
Rowan also said “I took full responsibility for what was said,” before criticizing the press release he put out after the event, which he claimed was written by his attorney. When asked her name, Rowan stated he only remembered her office was in Muskogee.
He also testified that he told Jourdan that afternoon, after Sapulpa was falsely identified, “absolutely not. I know for a fact Scott Sapulpa did not say that” while also admitting he did not tell Jourdan he was the one to say the slur.
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Sapulpa sought $20 million dollars in damages
Closing arguments kicked off Friday morning with Barkett.
He emphasized the lack of care The Oklahoman exercised when reporting the story.
“They wanted to be first, they wanted to be on the front page,” Barkett said, “Scott was not a person to them he was a name.”
Barkett encouraged the jury to hold Gannett and The Oklahoman accountable and requested the jury award Sapulpa $20 million in damages.
“You, the jury, have greater power than Gannett to render justice in this case.”
Defense attorney Bob Nelon downplayed the importance of the case, which Barkett had called the “most important case in Oklahoma.”
“Let’s keep it in perspective,” Nelon said. “The plaintiff’s case for damages rests entirely on speculation.”
He also argued that Gannett’s reporters acted reasonably and suggested the naming of Sapulpa was a “temporary error.”
“(The) temporary error at 12:37 was not the result of professional negligence,” Nelon emphasized.
During his brief rebuttal, Barkett argued “they’re trying to make you blame, Scott” and mocked the idea that Sapulpa received the hate messages coincidentally.
“He went into hiding. They have the audacity to say it was coincidental he was getting hate texts,” Barkett said, “What else are they from?”
At the end of his arguments, Barkett cried as he recounted his high school coach who he claimed “gave me confidence in myself” and changed his life.
“What a tragedy they’ve done to take this man away from what he loves and the kids he could have been a mentor to,” Barkett said.