Mitre Sports Mounts Exhaustive Closing Arguments as HBO ‘Real Sports’ Deliberations Begin

Bryant Gumbel Lawsuit
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

In what has been a four-week battle, lawyers hashing out the defamation suit brought by Mitre Sports International against HBO presented exhaustive closing arguments Thursday in Manhattan federal court.

Most of the day’s discussion centered on the dissection of a September 2008 segment of “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” that depicted children in India sewing soccer balls for Mitre, as well as the testimonies and videotaped depositions of representatives from both camps. Mitre claimed that the show’s producers staged the expose, coached some of the children about what to say on air and edited the segment in such a way that misled viewers into thinking that the underage sewers, who reportedly earned 5 cents an hour, were subcontractors for Mitre.

Judge George Daniels oversaw the crowded courtroom, which included numerous representatives from both sides including R. Stephen Rubin, chairman of the U.K. based-Pentland Brands, the $3 billion family-run business that owns Mitre, among other labels. During one of the breaks Thursday, Rubin declined to comment.

The arguments were so detailed, and at times redundant, that as the day slogged on, a few members of the 11-person jury appeared to close their eyes or doze off. Three other jurors were considerably more attentive, carrying notebooks that they used to keep track of both sides’ respective recaps, as well as numerous reviews of videotaped testimonies, witnesses’ highlighted transcripts and the actual program.

Jurors were due back in court Friday morning to get their instructions from Daniels before starting their deliberations.

The warring parties even clashed over the length of the segment, which clocked in at 21 or 22 minutes depending on who was addressing the courtroom. Beyond the potential punitive or compensatory damages, HBO is trying to fend off what would be a major hit to its journalistic credibility in documentary film. Before jurors were dismissed for the night, Mitre’s attorney Lloyd Constantine urged them to take into consideration when deliberating the fact that the Time Warner-owned HBO generated $5 billion in revenue in 2014 and had operating revenue of $1.8 billion. The way he saw it, punitive damages were in order to stop HBO from abusing its power as one of the world’s leading media companies.

HBO’s attorney Dane Butswinkas hammered home what he claimed was “a trial based on suggestion, not a trial by evidence.” He repeatedly showed footage of children sewing soccer balls with a degree of precision that he surmised could not have been learned recently. Butswinkas also claimed that in some cases part of their servitude stemmed from debt bondage in which children agree to work so that their parents can get loans. But those loans come with high interest rates that result in family members having to carry them from one generation to the next.

As reported, the fashion world has spent years and millions of dollars trying to eliminate illegal child labor and other workers’ right abuses in their supply chains through their corporate social responsibility programs, and many have had some success. But the issue of child labor is not clear-cut in many developing countries, particularly because the legal working age in some of them is set below the International Labor Organization’s standards, and employers argue they are complying with the laws of the countries in which they are operating.

Butswinkas reiterated that about one billion soccer balls at most are distributed, far away from the Indian children who made them. He also underscored that children’s paltry wages were for soccer balls that retail for $15 in the U.S. And unlike adults, child laborers will not unionize or strike. To highlight the toll of outsourcing, he said, “Everybody’s outsourcing and pushing it down the supply chain to find cheaper sources of production.”

“There were a zillion script reviews…the report is not perfect. But to say it was grossly irresponsible based on what you have heard in the past four weeks? No way.” Butswinkas told jurors.

In rebuttal, Constantine’s  numerous claims included:

* HBO producer Joe Persky and his team modeled the “Children of Industry” segment after Scott Pelley’s “Tobacco Slaves” segment for CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

* The Mitre brand was named or shown 24 times during “Children of Industry,” and no other manufacturer or brand was identified even though the segment acknowledged that at least 10 brands had children sewing soccer balls.

* Mitre does not produce soccer balls in Meerut, which is where the children were filmed, even though that may not have been evident to viewers due to editing.

* HBO Sports president Ross Greenberg advised the production team to not only show the soccer balls being stitched by children but to also show them being sold on the shelves of a U.S. store. (Wal-Mart, which was featured in the segment, subsequently removed Mitre soccer balls from its stores after the program aired.)

* In addition, before the September 2008 airing, Greenberg indicated that he had assured his friend Mitch Modell that Modell’s Sporting Goods, which was the largest retail outlet in the New York area for Mitre soccer balls at that time, would not be featured in the segment.