Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Some years ago, I represented a landlord who was indicted and convicted for offering a bounty to a thug if he beat up the leader of the tenants' committee, which was opposing a rent increase. This behavior does not seem all that much different from what the National Football League has alleged New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma did. Vilma, four other players, and his coach Sean Payton and others, have been disciplined by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for allegedly conspiring to offer rewards to teammates to maim opposing players, particularly star quarterbacks.
News about this alleged conspiracy has been widely publicized, but I have yet to read of any current or impending federal or state criminal or legislative inquiry. While certain violence in football is accepted, deliberate maiming goes beyond any acceptable norms. Nonetheless, it would not surprise me that neither federal nor state prosecutors, especially in the New Orleans area, where Vilma and his alleged player co-conspirators played, view such an investigation as crowd-pleasing. Realistically, it is quite possible that a New Orleans jury would nullify and acquit Vilma even if there were convincing evidence against him.
In virtually every other area of business activity where there is a tenable allegation that a person had conspired to maim a competitor or opponent, there would be a serious prosecutorial investigation. In sports, what is ordinarily considered criminality, at least physical criminality, is often given a bye.
One might think that Congress has a legitimate reason and special responsibility to investigate alleged orchestrated maiming in professional football, a national sport/business. The National Football League, as it is now, exists due to Congressional largess. Congress has given the NFL a special exemption to antitrust rules which allows it to function as a lucrative monopoly with an all-powerful commissioner. Professional football (which to my wife's chagrin I watch virtually every fall Sunday), if fairly and properly played, is a dangerous game, as reflected by the frequent injuries and limited career span of its players, and the reported unusual rates of early brain damage, suicides and deaths among its retirees. When improperly played -- played with a purpose of injuring others -- it is even more brutal.
Of course, just as an indictment might not be popular with local fans, a Congressional investigation into football brutality would probably not be favorably received by the voters back home, who like their contact sports (at least professional sports) such as football and hockey to be rough. Congress appears to be more interested in whether baseball players engage in taking illegal drugs, which, if it harms anyone, hurts only themselves or perhaps also competing players who perform at a comparative disadvantage without such presumed aids. Such an investigation also continues to feed the anti-drug attitude Congress has fostered and to justify the harsh drug laws Congress has enacted. Of course, Congress might also be gunshy in view of the embarrassment that the baseball steroid investigation and resulting Roger Clemens trial became.
This is not to say that I presume Vilma is guilty. I have not seen or heard any concrete evidence that he in fact did orchestrate a bounty program. The NFL investigation was conducted in secret and with only a sparse controlled public report by the NFL of its findings. Vilma's attorney, in a letter roughly equivalent to a motion for discovery in a criminal case, has asked for 17 points of information. The NFL's response is essentially that its special counsel, Mary Jo White, a respected and liked, and generally prosecution-minded, former United States Attorney, has reviewed the secret evidence and has found it sufficient. The NFL also claims that it had shared some of the evidence with the alleged offenders and the NFL Players Association. The association, while supporting the players' right to arbitration, presumably represents both Vilma and the alleged offenders, and is barely a substitute for a single-minded advocate on Vilma's behalf.
Thus, Vilma, subject to possible reversal by arbitration or court action, will be punished with a suspension of one year (a significant time in a football player's limited career span), and the loss of millions of dollars without even rudimentary due process. And, unlike many persons suspended or fired from jobs, Vilma is practically unable to ply his trade anywhere else besides the monopolistic NFL.
I do not know enough about the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, which apparently allows the Commissioner to be both prosecutor and judge, or about labor law to know whether Vilma has been treated properly. I do, however, have a visceral feeling that he deserves more rights than a secret investigation and a conclusory decree by a commissioner with dictatorial power.