Payback Time

How two hacked-off Cowboys scored on Channel 5 and Marty Griffin

If the facts are on your side, trial lawyers say, argue the facts to the jury. If the law is on your side, argue the law to the judge. And if you don't have either?XBaffle the insurer with your bullstuff.

Victoria Phillips doesn't know which approach won $1.1 million apiece for Dallas Cowboys Erik Williams and Michael Irvin to settle the players' libel, fraud, and invasion of privacy suits against Dallas NBC affiliate KXAS and its of-late-scarce reporter Marty Griffin. In fact, the 45-year-old receptionist at the Austin office of Jackson Walker L.L.P, site of the 11-and-a-half-hour mediation that produced the settlement late last month, doesn't much remember Marty Griffin.

"Was he the clean-shaven, dark-haired one?" Phillips asks. "I only remember him because he was talking about a Corvette he just bought."

Like several who attended the secret session, though, she was mightily impressed by the players. "Erik Williams was very shy," recalls Phillips, whose blond updo and 3-by-2-inch door-knocker earrings mask a sensible, down-to-earth personality. "And Michael Irvin was incredibly gentleman-like, polite, and cordial. He even paid me a compliment," says the miniskirted bodybuilder. "I wore a dress that was sleeveless. And he said, 'I do not want to offend you, but you really look nice. Where do you work out?' I remember he waited until his attorney was there. It was almost like he was asking approval to compliment me."

And Phillips recalls something else. For just a moment, she says, she felt sorry for the pair of sports-star millionaires. "I drew the blinds so they could have some privacy," she recalls. "But all day long, people would walk by the conference room and look in, and ask me, 'Is that who I think it is?' And I remember thinking--what must it really feel like to be that rich and famous, that you can't go anywhere without people staring and stopping you and asking for autographs?"

Irvin and Williams ended up plucking harder heartstrings than Phillips' that day. On paper, the settlement reached at the end of the mediation session is nothing short of astonishing. First, there's the amount: $2.2 million for the pair, or, to put it in perspective, $1.7 million more than the $500,000 Richard Jewell is reported to have received from NBC after being falsely accused of last summer's Olympic Park bombing.

Second, there's the speed with which the cases settled. The mediation took place July 22--just shy of seven weeks from the day Irvin filed his lawsuit. Though Williams' action had been on file five months, it was still early, in litigation time anyway. Only one witness, Cowboys star Nate Newton, had been deposed, and the initial discovery requests hadn't commanded paper enough to snuff a single tree.

Then there are the merits, or perceived lack thereof. At the time they were filed, both suits garnered a collective horselaugh. The players' cases were among the bits of legal flotsam bobbing around in the wake of last winter's Nina Shahravan rape-and-recantation episode. On December 30, Shahravan, a then-23-year-old makeup artist and erstwhile stripper, told police she had been raped by Williams and his friend, a former coach of Williams' at Central State College in Ohio. Shahravan further claimed that Irvin was present and acting as a sort of one-man porn studio--producing (holding a gun to her head), directing (telling her to "look like you're having fun"), and shooting footage (videotaping while holding the gun).

The story jumped the sports-crime pages to become front-page news across the land, thanks in no small part to both players' past peccadilloes. Last summer Irvin pleaded no contest to dope charges after he was discovered with 10.3 grams of cocaine at what seems to have been a regular Monday-night series of private lesbian-love shows, complete with kinky sex toys. Erik Williams' past problems included a drunken Mercedes-crackup and a prior rape accusation involving a 17-year-old stripper named Angela Russell. Though a grand jury had declined to indict Williams on the rape charge, it did so under rather smelly circumstances: Russell became a reluctant witness after someone paid her $110,000, ostensibly to settle a civil action she hadn't yet brought against Williams.

As many experts noted when the players' suits were filed, the law has a term for such plaintiffs: libel-proof. With their reputations, the argument goes, how can you do them any more damage?

Granted, this time around both men appeared to be innocent. Ten days after Shahravan made her outcry--not to police initially, but to KXAS reporter Griffin, who broke the story--she took it all back in a signed confession, leaving her to face perjury charges. Granted, too, some funny-looking business existed between Shahravan and Griffin. When Shahravan reported the "rape," the police said she had been "working with" Channel 5. When the media started asking questions, Channel 5 said Shahravan had been a "source" of Griffin's, but denied she'd been paid for her help.

On February 12, when Peter Ginsberg, Erik Williams' Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, brought suit against Griffin and his employer, Ginsberg said Griffin and KXAS "were effectively partners in" Shahravan's hoax. But the evidence of Griffin's complicity looked mighty slim. Griffin and the station claimed she was a straight-up source. Ginsberg claimed Griffin had been using Shahravan as Cowboy bait in some sort of drug-use story. Either way, it didn't necessarily follow that Griffin knew or should have known she made up the rape charge.

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