NFL Should Pass On Rushing To Judgment

By J.A. Adante
Updated: April 15, 2007

Harsh penalty?LOS ANGELES — Today’s subject is Duke lacrosse, NFL football and justice, but this might be harder than I thought since the e-mail reaction to my Don Imus column shows so many people don’t understand the concept of appropriate punishment.

It’s not complex. At Thursday’s Lakers-Clippers game I asked local and national broadcasters Jim Hill, John Ireland, Jim Gray, Kevin Harlan and Doug Collins if they would expect to keep their jobs if they ever made on-air comments similar to Imus’ racial- and gender-biased remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The unanimous answer: of course not.

If I wrote or said such offensive statements they wouldn’t make it past my newspaper editors or TV producers. But if they somehow did, I’d be gone. There are certain things you just don’t say about other people in mass media — even Imus knows better than to use the “n-word” on the air.

Some people tried to cloud the issue by bringing up the misogynist or race-baiting words of comics, reverends and rappers. (Rappers glorify guns, too, so would Imus be excused if he shot someone?) This isn’t about them. This is about Imus and his specific targeting of these college students.

This isn’t about freedom of speech. The 1st Amendment applies to government actions, and I didn’t see federal agents arresting Imus. He’s welcome to start a blog if he wants to keep belittling other people. This is about holding broadcasters, corporate ownership and their sponsors accountable for defamatory remarks that set our culture back.

Why this instance and why this moment? Who knows? Why did Rosa Parks pick Dec. 1, 1955, to decide she wasn’t going to move to the back of the bus? Sometimes enough is enough. This was one of those turning points.

So now we turn to another milestone moment this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s yearlong suspension of Adam “Pacman” Jones and half-season suspension of Chris Henry for their numerous run-ins with the law.

It was notable not only for its precedent but for its caveat. The NFL’s new conduct policy calls for aggressive discipline “even when the conduct itself has not yet resulted in a conviction of a crime.”

In other words, no presumption of innocence. That especially comes into play with Jones, who has become the face of NFL players gone wild. Although police have recommended he be charged in connection with a Las Vegas strip club altercation in February, he has not yet been charged. Nor has he been formally connected by police to a shooting outside the club later.

This ties in with another big story from last week, the dropping of all remaining charges against the three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape last year by a stripper who performed at a team party.

The whole lacrosse program was prematurely and unfairly punished for allegations that turned out to be bogus. The remaining part of the 2006 season was canceled and the coach resigned. The three players racked up $3 million in legal fees defending themselves from baseless charges.

Eventually the players can restore their names to good standing and recoup the financial hit. As athletes, they can’t regain the lost season taken from them.

And that’s something for Goodell to keep in mind before he hands down these or any other crime-related suspensions. What if the accused are really innocent? How would he feel if one day he wound up keeping an innocent man off the field, unfairly denying him a chance to make a living in his chosen profession?

I had some skepticism about the Duke case when the story first broke last March. First off, they brought in all 46 white members of the team for DNA sampling. The accuser couldn’t narrow the list of potential perpetrators at all just by looking at them?

And then the DNA results failed to connect any of the players to the accuser. Whoops.

Yet District Attorney Mike Nifong insisted on pressing ahead with the case and even secured grand jury indictments against three players even as eyebrow-raising stories about the accuser’s past and her behavior on the night in question surfaced.

Incredibly, he said in an October court hearing that “I haven’t talked with her about the facts of that night…. We’re not at that stage yet.” Wouldn’t interviewing the accuser be a stage before seeking indictments?

In December, news of Nifong’s withholding DNA evidence as well as yet another change in the woman’s story led to his dropping rape charges. Last week the North Carolina attorney general dismissed remaining charges of kidnapping and sexual offense.

As with the Imus case, people are getting distracted by the members of the chorus rather than the main actors. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are getting called out for the way they saw the spotlight shining on this case and rushed in to defend the woman and call out the lacrosse players after the sensational mix of poor black “victim” and privileged white “attackers” made it a national story. Jackson and Sharpton weren’t the villains here. Those are the accuser and Nifong, as well as a system that doesn’t provide enough of a deterrent to false police reports and reckless prosecution.

The problem is, proving something didn’t happen can be just as big a challenge, so most people don’t even try. But women who misuse the legal system are every bit as guilty as actual sexual predators. And what makes it worse is false accusers distract time and resources from catching real criminals.

I’d love to see Nifong disbarred, and for him and the accuser to face criminal charges and civil lawsuits. And I’d love to see Goodell and the rest of us learn from this story: that we need time and facts before we can assess blame and mete out punishments.