Athletes Often Are Convicted In Court Of Public Opinion

By David Whitley
Updated: July 11, 2007

ORLANDO — Quick, what do Michael Vick, Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones and Barry Bonds have in common? If you said they’ve recently been found guilty of injecting pit bulls with steroids while driving drunk to a strip club, it would be understandable. It also would be wrong. Despite what you might have heard, read, seen, thought and believed, the aforementioned gentlemen have been found guilty of nothing.

That doesn’t mean they are innocent. It does mean that if public opinion were on trial, it would be guilty of trashing the Constitutional right to due process.

For some reason I just can’t get very upset about that. Maybe it was all those dog graves federal investigators found on Vick’s property.

Still, put yourself in O.J. Simpson’s shoes. Well, maybe not his Bruno Maglis since everybody knows O.J. did it.

But imagine what Johnson felt like last week. He’d been charged with DUI. The Bears released him. The NFL shook its head in disgust.

Then the charges were dropped. Even the ACLU wouldn’t defend Johnson’s character, but his case illustrates how the scales of public perception are skewed.

Some jocks are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Then they are still guilty.

Joining Tank & Co. in the rogues gallery are Mark McGwire, Lance Armstrong (at least if the jury is French), Sammy Sosa and Kobe Bryant.

The legal system and drug tests (or lack of them) might say they’ve done nothing wrong. But they are viewed as latter-day O.J.s. The difference being McGwire has never said he’ll spend the rest of his life searching for the real juicers.

Why don’t they get the benefit of the doubt when things go bad? It starts with a player’s body of work. Consider the cases of Bonds and Roger Clemens.

The Rocket was almost as skinny as Bonds when he broke in. Now he’s a lumberjack.

The Rocket was considered washed up 10 years ago. He’s defied the aging process and actually gotten better in his 40s.

Sounds a lot like another star born pre-1965. But none of the circumstantial evidence has America holding its nose when Clemens makes an appearance.

Ex-teammate Jason Grimsley said Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs. Compare that to Bonds, whose trainer has gone to prison to avoid testifying against him.

A book has been written about Bonds’ juicing, and its facts have largely gone unchallenged. Is it any wonder Roger is considered the Rocket and Barry is considered the Rascal?

If you think it would be hard to find an impartial jury for Bonds, imagine seating one for Pacman. He’s been arrested five times and had twice that many run-ins with the law. Yet he has the same number of convictions as Tony Dungy.

Call it guilt by association with yourself, and it’s not just limited to people. Schools, teams and entire countries also have lost the presumption of innocence.

If an Ivy League football player gets arrested, it’s called an anomaly. If a Miami football player gets arrested, it’s called freshman orientation.

If a Chinese swimmer shows up at the Beijing Olympics with dorsal fins and webbed feet, will anyone be surprised?

And will the last Cincinnati Bengal to leave the jail cell please turn out the light?

It’s hard to keep an open mind after the 12th arrest, but sometimes the innocent really are. Exhibit A would be the State of North Carolina vs. Finnerty, Evans and Seligmann.

You want a rush to judgment? The Duke lacrosse players were given the O.J. treatment by the media, civil rights groups, women’s groups, Duke academia and a deranged prosecutor.

The only hitch, of course, was the accuser was a kook. Gosh, imagine the apology we’d owe Bonds if it turns out Mike Nifong is behind all the BALCO stuff.

Fortunately for the court of public opinion, the accused is rarely completely innocent. So the next time you hear a dog yelp on Vick’s farm, don’t worry about his Constitutional rights.

If somebody wants the benefit of the doubt, they should at least try to earn it.