Ryan Zimmerman denies PED use, explains defamation suit

VIERA, Fla. - Ryan Zimmerman today vehemently denied ever using performance enhancing drugs or knowing the trainer who accused him of using them, and offered a detailed explanation why he was willing to file a defamation suit against the television network that aired the allegation that jolted the Nationals first baseman's offseason.

In his first public comments since Al Jazeera America aired a documentary in December accusing him and several other high-profile athletes of receiving shipments of PEDs, Zimmerman nearly turned emotional Tuesday morning, clearing his throat several times as he sat in the dugout at Space Coast Stadium and answered questions about the subject for roughly 20 minutes.

"None of that stuff is true," he said. "I've never done any of that. I've never thought about doing any of that."

Zimmerman and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, also named in the documentary, filed a defamation suit against Al Jazeera in January, a step he said he was willing to take to clear his name despite the difficult nature of winning such cases and the vast array of private information that could become public in a trial.

Zimmerman close gray helmet.jpg"It's one of those things where privacy is really not privacy anymore for me," Zimmerman said. "It's unfortunate that I have to do that, but that's the steps I'm willing to take to show people that I have nothing to hide."

Zimmerman said he first became aware of the story when Al Jazeera contacted his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, shortly before the documentary aired - "a conversation we thought we'd never have to have" - and described his immediate reaction as "shocked."

The documentary, an overarched piece on PED use among American athletes titled "The Dark Side," became national news for its allegations against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his wife. Former Indianapolis anti-aging institute pharmacist Charlie Sly was caught on hidden camera saying Zimmerman and Howard were among the athletes who received shipments of Delta-2 (a steroid-like hormone supplement) from him while he worked at the Guyer Institute.

Sly later recanted the story and told Al Jazeera the statements attributed to him "are absolutely false and incorrect," though the network still aired the previously completed documentary as scheduled.

"I've never met that guy," Zimmerman said Tuesday. "I've never heard of that guy. The guy that supposedly helps me train in the offseason."

Asked how he believes he wound up named in the report, Zimmerman said he believes the link was Jason Riley, a Florida athletic trainer and strength coach who has worked with him in the past. According to a New York Times report, Riley founded a nutritional supplement company with Sly and another investor called Elementz Nutrition Web, which included a photo of Zimmerman on its website before recently shutting down.

"Jason is a trainer I've worked with for years," Zimmerman said Tuesday. "His reputation is one of, if not the cleanest reputation trainers have. I can't speak for what happens with who he's involved with, things like that. But Jason's always been great with me and obviously has never given me ... or I've never taken any of those things that they've talked about. I would assume that that's the link. It's kind of reckless. A lot of people have worked with trainers and things like that. It's hard to just throw peoples' names out there without really having any sort of proof."

A few weeks after the documentary aired, Zimmerman and Howard (who also is represented by Van Wagenen) filed a defamation lawsuit against Al Jazeera America, reporter Deborah Davies and British hurdler Liam Collins (who went undercover for the network to interview Sly).

The burden of proof for public figures in a defamation suit is massive. Zimmerman and Howard must prove not only that the statements made in the documentary were false but also that Al Jazeera acted with either actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth.

Zimmerman said he understands how difficult it is to win these cases and recognizes that he now exposes himself to all sorts of public discovery of private information like phone records and emails. But he said he felt an obligation to follow through with the suit, not only to help his own cause but to help others who might not be able to afford similar defamation suits.

"It's really, really hard to win these suits," Zimmerman admitted. "But I think it's my responsibility, not only to clear my name, but ... I sort of felt a responsibility because I am able to fight it, that maybe if this stops this from happening to just one person after me, then it's worth it. There's a lot of things involved, there's a lot of factors and variables involved. But I think me filing suit and me opening myself up to everything that filing a suit opens you up to, I don't really think there's much of a stronger I guess action for me to take than saying: 'Here you go. Come look at me legally.' "

Zimmerman insisted the lawsuit would not be a distraction for him or the Nationals, and that if the case ultimately goes to trial, it likely wouldn't occur until next offseason. He also insisted he supports investigations into legitimate PED use by athletes but feels burned by a system that has dragged some innocent players through the mud.

"I understand journalists and news outlets, they obviously have a job to do," Zimmerman said. "The First Amendment is put in place to protect them from not being able to report the news the way they should be able to report it. I understand how it works, but there's gotta be a line drawn somewhere. There's gotta be a way for innocent people to not be basically be proven guilty in the public opinion, and then have to fight to be innocent. It's supposed to be the other way around in this country."

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