On Monday night, in a well-publicized incident, Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams shoved freelance photographer Ryan Zebley while walking to the locker room after his team’s night’s loss in Kansas City. The aftermath already involves criminal law, and it could soon add civil litigation, league punishment and loss of endorsement deals.
Zebley, who worked the game for ESPN, filed a police report claiming body and head injuries after Adams pushed him. Zebley was treated at a local hospital. Adams apologized after the game, though he seemed to blame Zebley for being in his way. “I seen some guy running off the field, and he ran or jumped in front of me, coming off the field, and I bumped into him and kind of pushed him, and he ended up on the ground,” Adams told the media.
On Wednesday, Kansas City police charged Adams with misdemeanor assault. An officer wrote in a charge sheet that Adams “did, by an intentional, overt act, inflict bodily injury or cause an unlawful offensive contact upon [Zebley] by pushing [him] to the ground using two hands[,] causing whiplash and head ache, possible minor concussion.”
The alleged assault falls under Kansas City ordinance 50-169, which carries a maximum imprisonment of 180 days and a fine ranging from $250 to $1,000. Adams has a court date scheduled for Nov. 10, a few days before the Raiders host the Indianapolis Colts in Week 10.
Adams’ defense will be challenged by the incontrovertible video evidence of the shove happening on national TV. It was neither an accidental bump nor in self-defense. Adams also didn’t seem contrite or worried. He walked right by a grounded Zebley and made no apparent gesture to see if he was OK or to help him up.
On the other hand, Adams lacks a known criminal record—first-time offenders usually receive lighter punishments—and Zebley wasn’t seriously injured. A case of this nature could be resolved without jail time, but Adams might have to acknowledge fault in court and pay a fine.
Adams also faces the prospect of a civil lawsuit, where Zebley would seek money for his pain and suffering, loss of wages and health care costs, the latter of which is often an issue for freelancers. Zebley could sue Adams for battery and claim that Adams intentionally caused harmful or offensive contact with him. He might also argue that Adams intentionally inflicted emotional distress. In addition, Zebley could sue the Raiders, and potentially the NFL, for negligent supervision and training of Adams. Missouri has a five-year statute of limitations period for personal injury claims.
Courts have found that spectators at sporting events usually assume risk of injuries from ordinary hazards. For instance, fans injured by foul balls often lose their lawsuits. Game tickets also contain liability waivers stating, in sum, that a spectator agrees to relinquish potential claims over injuries from game activities and equipment, and that the team or stadium owes no duty of care beyond providing ordinary, industry-typical safeguards.
But as a photographer, Zebley is in a different category of spectator. He needed a media credential, which has its own set of terms and conditions, to work from the field at Arrowhead Stadium. Like other teams, the Chiefs require a credential request be made by an editor of a media company (in this case, ESPN). Media credentials usually contain assumption of risk language for personal injury. However, those disclaimers are part of the journalist’s agreement with the home team and facility—not a visiting team’s player—thus making Adams more vulnerable to litigation.
Media credential agreements also normally stipulate that any disputes must be resolved through arbitration, which is conducted in private, rather than litigation. But courts are sometimes skeptical of these causes. Last year, an Illinois court refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an Associated Press photographer injured at Wrigley Field because while the media company was a party to the credential contract, the photographer was not.
Meanwhile, the NFL could suspend or fine Adams for conduct detrimental. Millions of viewers watched Adams shove Zebley, and the incident placed the league in a poor light. The NFL might also reason that if it does nothing, it would communicate the wrong message to its broadcast partners—namely, that it won’t hold players accountable who injure broadcast partners’ representatives. Last year the league signed 11-year, $105 billion media rights renewals with ESPN, CBS, FOX and NBC.
Adams, a five-time Pro Bowler, must also worry about the impact of the controversy on his endorsement deals. According to published reports, he has deals with Jordan Brands and MGM International Resorts, among other major brands. Those deals likely contain “morals clauses” which enable the company to suspend or terminate the deal on account of the player bringing themselves into public disrepute or engaging in conduct that insults or offends the community in which the brand serves. The longer the Adams controversy attracts headlines, the more at-risk Adams becomes to losing endorsement money.