Fox Settles Lawsuit for Using Muhammad Ali to Hype Super Bowl

Fox argued the case was an attack on free speech, but at a hearing, a judge saw the possibility that a three-minute video about great athletes was commercial speech.
Columbia Pictures / Photofest

Fox Broadcasting and Muhammad Ali Enterprises will be trading punches no longer as a $30 million lawsuit over the boxer’s image in a Super Bowl promo has been settled.

The entity that asserts ownership of the legendary boxer’s likeness filed suit in October 2017, contending that a three-minute video before the Super Bowl that year violated publicity rights and represented a false endorsement. The promo in question used archival footage of Ali and, after referring to him as “the Greatest,” showed various NFL legends as the narrator stated that “in the Super Bowl, many have marched towards this same confrontation with greatness.”

The lawsuit was handled by Frederick Sperling, an attorney who previously prevailed on behalf of Michael Jordan in a trial against a Chicago-area grocery store that took out an advertisement in Sports Illustrated congratulating him on his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Fox argued that the latest case was an attack on free speech. In motions to dismiss the case, the broadcaster told the judge that public figures don’t get to censor the message nor get paid whenever some historical context is added to an important event like the Super Bowl.

The case didn’t make it far enough for the judge to rule on Fox’s contention that the promo wasn't explicitly misleading. Nor did the case result in some provocative side arguments including copyright preemption and that MAE hadn't registered Ali's publicity rights in a timely manner.

That said, somewhat surprisingly, it appears as though MAE had the upper hand in the first round. At a hearing in May, according to Courthouse News, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu indicated she was leaning on moving the case forward. "A lot of it boils down to the question of whether the segment we are talking about was commercial speech or not,” Ryu said. “If it’s an ad, Fox has some problems.”

On Monday, Nathan Siegel, the attorney representing Fox, announced the settlement in a court filing. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.