BIG WIN: After four weeks of testimony and Thursday’s fight-to-the-finish closing arguments, an 11-person jury ruled in favor of HBO here Friday, deciding the network had not acted grossly irresponsibly in a libel case rooted in a 2008 segment of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that featured children in India allegedly stitching Mitre soccer balls.
While jurors spent most of Friday hashing out their decision and requesting various evidence to review again, legal teams and executives from HBO and Mitre Sports International remained inside or just a few floors away from Judge George Daniels’ courtroom in the U.S. District Court. Described by lawyers from both sides as “diligent” and “attentive,” the jury requested an early start Friday and six of the 11 carried notebooks to record specific details.
Both parties beelined to the courtroom when word spread that the jury had reached a decision. En route with his associates in a crowded elevator, Mitre’s lawyer Lloyd Constantine took yoga-worthy breaths while R. Stephen Rubin, chairman of Pentland Group, which owns Mitre, smiled encouragingly.
Hours before, they had joined HBO’s lawyers Dane Butswinkas and Kevin Baine when the jury took a second look at videotaped depositions and transcripts from HBO Sports’ president Ross Greenburg, “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” producer Joe Perskie and Sports Goods Foundation of India’s project director Ravi Purewal, as well as a YouTube video that featured two girls who were filmed in “Children of Industry,” declaring an “unknown uncle and aunty forcibly clicked pictures of them stitching soccer balls.” In his 2010 deposition, the India-based Purewal estimated that 99 percent of soccer balls were stitched in homes as opposed to factories or sewing centers, and that the group had increased its staff of monitors to nine due to increased demand.
After the decision was delivered and as some of them congratulated, shook hands and embraced HBO’s legal duo, Baine initially declined comment, explaining he had to speak with a juror whom he referred to by name. Approaching the segment’s producer Perskie, one female juror, who declined to be identified, called out, “Nice job, Mr. Perskie.”
Shortly thereafter, an HBO spokesman said, “We are delighted with the jury’s decision, which confirms what we have said since the beginning of this legal proceeding in the fall of 2008: This case was without merit and the ‘Real Sports’ reporting was unimpeachable. We couldn’t be prouder of the ‘Real Sports’ franchise and the award-winning work done over the past 20 years.
“We are grateful to the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence,” the spokesman said.
Constantine said Mitre had not decided whether it would make an appeal. He claimed jurors had indicated to him that there were signs of defamation. A dejected-looking Rubin concurred, shaking his head disappointedly. (One female juror, who requested anonymity, seemed to substantiate that claim after the fact.) “At least we got our policies out,” Rubin said, referring to the company’s as well as his own longstanding fight against child labor.
A statement issued by a Mitre spokesman Friday afternoon reinforced that concept. “We are disappointed with the jury’s verdict. But we are pleased we were able to tell our side of the story to the general public. For us, this case has not been about winning or losing, it has always been about setting the record straight even if we were unable to overcome the high burden of proof under U.S. law.
“As the trial documented, our long record of working to eliminate child labor was strongly endorsed,” he said. “We are longstanding supporters of, and work closely with organizations such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) and the Sports Goods Foundation of India (SGFI). Collectively, we are committed to ensuring that factories and homes comply with labor standards and that, if cases of child labor are found, we work together to lift those children out of work and into school.”
Earlier in the day Rubin, who is based in the U.K., explained why he felt it was important to be in the courtroom for Thursday’s closing arguments and Friday’s decision. “Simply because I started the movement in the Nineties as president of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry. When I came in, I committed to organizing the Committee on Ethics and Fair Trade. For me, this [case] is very personal. It involves 20 years’ worth of work that could suddenly be wiped out.”
Had he taken the logical route, as other manufacturers have, he said he would have stopped sourcing from India altogether. Rubin said he preferred not to do that since so many families there already face such hardship and they would be put out of work. “What we’re doing is in the interest of children, as well as their families,” he said.
Rubin also made the point that often when women in India are displaced from work, they will get their children into prostitution “and heaven knows what else” to help support their families.
But in the end, jurors disagreed with Mitre’s claim that the show’s producers staged the exposé, coached some of the children about what to say on air and zeroed in on only Mitre despite HBO’s mention that at least 10 other brands were using children to stitch soccer balls in India. Jurors also did not buy into the suggestion that HBO’s final edit of “Children of Industry” misled viewers into thinking that the underage children sewing soccer balls at home, who reportedly earned 5 cents an hour, were subcontractors for Mitre.
Leaving the courtroom, a few jurors, who declined to be identified, said that what they perceived as Mitre executives’ insensitivity to the child laborers was the tipping point. One female juror said, “For me, it came down to the kids. No one was really talking about the kids.”
One of her male counterparts, who also requested anonymity, said that Mitre’s team appeared to be more concerned about the company’s image than the well-being of child laborers. “They weren’t really addressing the issue — the kids,” he said.
“I do believe in HBO too. I think their lawyers did a good job pursuing the case and ‘Real Sports’ did a good job reporting the [Children of Industry] story,” he said.