Scott Daniels

The Dark Side Of Sports And The Law

Created on Jul. 08, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Professional sports and the law are often synonymous with one another. Collective bargaining agreements, lockouts and contractual negotiations typically involve strenuous legal interpretation, but to the professional athlete, these situations are characteristic of the industry. Labor disputes and contract negations are the good, necessary dichotomy between sports and the law.

The dark side of law and professional sports involves crimes committed by high priced athletes on and off the field, but this is nothing new. Illicit conduct by NFL players ranges from possession of marijuana to murder. In this day and age, the general public is not necessarily surprised by an athlete’s conduct, but more obsessed with the coverage and salacious dirt dug up by anyone with access to the internet.

The Aaron Hernandez situation has captivated not only the sports world, but the entire nation. Public figures often have a difficult time avoiding the spotlight no matter the circumstances, but when faced with criminal charges, it’s almost impossible to garner any sympathy from the outside world. Barring a plea deal by Hernandez, he will face the insurmountable task of proving his innocence to a jury that has surely been tainted in some form or fashion prior to trial.

When a professional athlete is charged with committing a crime, media outlets are all over it. A trial, or the legal climax of the athlete’s fate, is nothing but a formality in the process. Long before a jury is chosen or testimony is taken, the athlete suffers damage that can, in some cases, be worse than the criminal penalty.

Certainly not the case for Hernandez.

He’s facing life behind bars without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder. But take the athlete who’s charged with a different crime, of less severity. Upon being simply charged with a crime, the player risks losing corporate sponsors, lucrative long-term contracts and, in the NFL, possible suspension before the legal process runs its course. Some players face the prospect of unemployment, no matter how vital they are to the team.

And when a team chooses to release the player, it has a rippling effect on the player’s reputation. An athlete’s clash with the law that leads to their release not only deters other teams from acquiring them, but fans infer guilt when the organization cuts its ties with the player. Keep in mind that this is all before a legal outcome.

But teams and fans are not the only ones to pre-judge a player after they’ve been initially charged with a crime.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has implemented a conduct policy aimed at cleaning up the image of the NFL. While its generally been applauded by fans and players alike, Goodell has seen his fair share of criticism for delivering stiff punishment without due process of the law. But the NFL is a private entity, so Goodell is acting well within his power.

Over the course of the next few months, Hernandez’s checkered past is going to be examined like a science project. Childhood activity that represents the norm for many people will be deemed damaging or harmful to his character, based on the severity of the charges he faces. For Hernandez, the murder charge was enough to shatter his future, regardless of his pending trial.

But what about Ray Lewis, you ask? Murder charges brought on him were eventually dropped in 2000 following the stabbing deaths of two people. He went on to have an inspirational career ending with a Super Bowl victory last season, and he’ll be spending retirement in the television booth at ESPN.

Would things have been different for Lewis if he were charged with those same crimes today? Who knows. But we do know that social media and today’s over coverage of these stories would have had a detrimental effect on Lewis’s future as an NFL player.

It’s way too early to tell what Hernandez’s chances are in beating the murder charge, along with the bevy of gun charges. But his NFL contract is long gone, his endorsement deals have disappeared and his future in the league has most likely come to an end. Just another example of how sports and the law sometimes coexist in the worst way possible.

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