Athletes are dodging the courtroom

Whether it’s a criminal case, a civil suit or a congressional
hearing, pro athletes are going to great lengths to avoid giving
testimony under oath these days. And, it’s doing massive injury to
their reputations. Or it should be.
Whether it’s a criminal case, a civil suit or a congressional hearing, pro athletes are going to great lengths to avoid giving testimony under oath these days. And, it’s doing massive injury to their reputations. Or it should be.

Accused of rape, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant sics his high-powered legal team on his accuser, exploiting a series of judicial and prosecutorial missteps, and leaks of privileged evidence, to ruin her public image and mortally wound the case. Then, after his accuser wrecks the criminal case by refusing to testify and pursues a federal civil suit instead, Bryant blatantly avoids testifying under oath in a deposition hearing by paying her off. Terms are not disclosed.

While the entire incident cost Bryant his carefully cultivated clean-cut public image, not to mention millions of dollars in endorsement money, the effort to rehabilitate his persona is already well under way. His handlers have already lined up a Carl’s Jr. advertising campaign, choosing a low-risk fast food franchise with a reputation for using “edgy” spokesmen for Bryant’s return foray into the world of big bucks shill-meistering. And, it’s only a matter of time before the rationalizing begins in earnest. It goes something like this: You can’t hold this incident against poor Kobe because the charges were dropped, you can’t blame him for the reprehensible actions of his legal team because he has the right to a defense and his payoff doesn’t mean he did anything wrong because out-of-court settlements do not indicate any assumption of responsibility.

Not that his accuser is blameless. While it may very well be true that she was sexually assaulted, and she certainly was run through the media ringer, her decision to withdraw from the criminal case and then settle for cash over justice did irreparable damage to all rape victims everywhere. And, it was especially injurious to women who have been, and will be, assaulted by celebrities. What message does this send? That it’s okay for celebrities to rape women as long as they’re willing to pay the price for their victims’ silence? That it’s alright for women, raped or not, to accuse celebrities of felonious assault and then trade their dignity and their integrity for a big payday?

By the way, why is Bryant’s accuser’s name still being withheld? She is no longer accusing Bryant of rape in criminal or civil proceedings, so why is she being shielded? When any accuser drops a criminal case and settles a related civil case, I believe they’ve forfeited both the right and the privilege to remain anonymous.

I believe this whole thing was planned down to the last detail. I believe the accuser and Bryant’s lawyers reached an agreement that she would drop the criminal case and settle the civil case well before she did either. I believe the timing of both were also carefully planned. A quick civil settlement would have raised suspicions, but most of the media seem loathe to touch the story now. Notice the deafening silence that greeted the civil settlement? It’s almost certain that the terms of the settlement will eventually be reported but it will hardly make a splash when it does.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s as simple as this: Either Bryant raped his accuser and she let him get away with it because he paid her enough, or she falsely accused him in an attempt to blackmail him for money and he let her get away with it. Either way, both come off as despicable people in this whole horrible mess. Either way, this has nothing to do with justice. It has to do with avoiding testimony under oath, and it has to do with a whole lot of money.

And then there’s Major League Baseball and the Congressional hearings on steroid abuse in baseball. To be sure, Congress only got involved because MLB was making such a half-hearted effort to address the problem of performance-enhancing substance abuse. Any kind of effort on the part of Commissioner Bud Selig and his sycophants to react acceptably to a growing crisis and adequately police itself would have headed off any Congressional inquiry. (Remember, MLB and pro sports in general have avoided the whole anti-trust issue for eons, courtesy of Congressional ennui.) But the nation’s lawmakers are head first into the issue now, scheduling hearings and issuing subpoenas to current and former players, and there should be hell to pay.

Now, MLB and its players are not only dragging their collective feet on the steroids issue but are compounding the error by digging in their heels and vowing to fight the Congressional subpoenas. So, why is MLB and its players making such a stink? Because they don’t want to testify under oath.

It is exceedingly ironic that a career ne’er-do-well like Jose Canseco has ended up in the role of whistle-blower and is one of the only past or present MLB players willing to testify before Congress, while media darling Mark McGwire is in danger of sliding into ignominy by remaining silent along with several other popular ballplayers who have received Congressional subpoenas.

McGwire’s protestations are weak at best. He accuses the media of willfully ignoring his innate ability to hit home runs in order to focus on the steroids issue, but isn’t that a little like a burglar accusing the police of ignoring the skill with which he broke into a home to focus on the fact that he stole the family jewels?

And, what does McGwire hope to accomplish by staying mum? That the steroids issue will just go away and he will waltz merrily into the Hall of Fame without ever having to address his role, or lack of one, in boosting his own performance? That ship has sailed. Is he hoping that the public is so enamored of its sports heroes that it will insist that Congress immediately halt its meddling? That dog won’t hunt.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that McGwire and his fellow stars will hold out long enough to be jailed for contempt. Instead, they’ll likely show up to the Congressional hearings and plead the fifth.

If they do that, MLB should take a page out of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ playbook and suspend all those players from baseball for life, irreparably tarnishing their reputations. But that will probably never happen because Selig will spin the players’ refusal to answer questions as merely them asserting their constitutional rights not to incriminate themselves. But just as Judge Landis knew that the verdict of a hometown jury didn’t mean the World Series hadn’t been thrown, Selig should know that just because remaining silent is a constitutional right doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Sports in general needs more people doing the right thing these days. Let’s hope it starts with baseball.

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