Your Image Is Never Above The Law

The Justice System can be swift and unforgiving.

I recently published the following article on a website that caters to aspiring professional basketball players and college/NBA recruiters:

An unknown author once wrote, “remember, people will judge you by your actions, not your intentions.  You may have a heart of gold, but so does a hard-boiled egg.”  This statement is quite powerful.  It reminds us that one’s actions, not mere intentions, are everything.  This statement is particularly true when your image is a brand and ultimately your source of income.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not, and never will be, an exceptionally talented athlete who plays a professional sport for a living.  In fact, I do what some people consider to be quite boring.  I am the quintessential “corporate desk jockey.”  At age 29, I practice law as a corporate litigator in New York City, suing companies and white-collar professionals on a daily basis.  As a result, I know and understand four critical things: (i) the power of money; (ii) what it is like to be a young professional; (iii) that one bad decision can translate into a courtroom appearance; and (iv) how quickly such an appearance can strip a professional of his career.  Accordingly, in this article, I will highlight certain legal factors every young professional athlete should consider in cultivating a positive image.

The Power of Money

In most cultures, money, at least in part, is a symbol of power.  With the right bank account, the World becomes your oyster.  I can recall thinking to myself as a kid (and every now and then as an adult), “what would I do if I won the lottery?”  Instantly, a million answers leapt into my head: I would spin a globe like Prince Akeem and randomly select a destination; I would fulfill each one of my need-for-speed desires by purchasing several European made sports cars; I would purchase a home in each of my favorite cities; and most importantly, I would not think twice about my actions, because why should I, I’m a millionaire, right?!?

In contrast to my delusions of lottery grandeur, sixty men actually win the “NBA lottery” each June, gaining the right to play for 1 of 30 National Basketball Association teams.  Last year’s average first-year salary for an NBA rookie drafted in the first round amounted to just under $1.7 million.  This number does not take into account the first-year endorsement money reaped by certain uniquely talented rookies.  Thus, in addition to the pressure of performing up to huge expectations on the court, NBA rookie players are given the daunting task of managing their lives off the court as newfound millionaires.  Recently, too many young professional athletes have squandered such money not because they purchased expensive cars and lavish homes, but because they miscalculated the legal ramifications of their actions.  Indeed, what these athletes didn’t realize is that their image is never above the law.  Notwithstanding O.J. Simpson’s success with the late, great Johnnie Cochran at his side, fortunately you can never buy your way out of a confrontation with the U.S. Justice System.  Moreover, a legal confrontation can arise at the blink of an eye, while tarnishing your image in an even shorter period of time.

The Young Professional

The definition of the young professional is quite expansive these days.  In an era where one of the most talented rap stars of all time is as successful in business at age 41 as he was with music at age 26, the professional title is no longer limited to those individuals associated with law, medicine, big-business or Wall Street.  The professional constitutes anyone from an athlete/entertainer to the Chief Executive Officer of a large corporation.

In carrying the professional title, one must accommodate the baggage that comes along with it, including the responsibility of making sound decisions.  Importantly, one’s inattention to this responsibility can amount to professional suicide.  For instance, over the past four years, the following group of professionals has consistently been the target of criticism and negative attention from the government, the media, and the average citizen: the Wall Street and corporate tycoons.  Understandably, a negative aura has followed this group of professionals because many of their most wealthy figures contributed to the demise of the U.S. economy (cough, cough…Bernard Madoff…cough).  I won’t bore you with the details, but, as you probably know, their reckless deeds did not go unpunished.  In fact, I can’t count on two hands the number of corporate executives, wealth managers or professional investors who have been recently fined and/or served jail time as a result of their violations of the U.S. securities laws and regulations.  Many, if not most of them, never anticipated that one bad decision would lead them down a path of fraud and deceit, and the eventual loss of their professional reputation and ability to earn a living.  At the end of the day, many of these white-collar criminals were stripped of their professions because of their greed and a complete disregard for anything other than making money.

So, you might be wondering, “where is he going with this?  I’m an up-and-coming professional athlete, not an executive capable of violating the U.S. securities laws.”  My point is simple; money can similarly cause the young professional athlete to lose sight of the most critical responsibility accompanying the title: maintaining a squeaky-clean image.

A Legal Confrontation Can Arise At The Blink of An Eye

As a male in my late twenties, I am certainly capable of making the occasional bad decision.  I’ll provide an example that all of us have either been in or seen played out on television: you decide to meet a friend at a crowded and chaotic bar.  While you’re attempting to grab a drink, a drunken guy bumps into you, spilling his beverage all over your crisp, new outfit.  To make things worse, the guy fails to acknowledge his wrong, giving you a look as if he’s owed an apology.  The two of you exchange a couple of unpleasant words, and eventually, you find yourself laying a hand on the guy, escalating the situation to a level further than it should have ever reached.

Here’s a second example: you meet an attractive young lady while you’re out with a few friends.  One thing leads to another, and she comes back to your home later that night.  You two have sex, and she departs the next morning before you even get an opportunity to learn more than her first name.  To your surprise, the young lady is 15 years old.  You’re 23.

I’ll provide a third and final example: a friend who you’ve known for almost your entire life presents an idea to you.  He recently learned that a well-off acquaintance of his stores large quantities of alcohol in his home.  He proposes that you provide him a ride to the acquaintance’s home, where he will gain entrance into the residence and take a couple bottles of alcohol for you all to share.  He promises that the acquaintance won’t even realize that such a small quantity of alcohol is missing.  He additionally assures you that if anything goes wrong, you’ll be okay because “giving him a ride doesn’t constitute a crime.”  You two go through with the plan and subsequently share the alcohol your friend procures.

Let’s dissect the former examples.  With respect to the first one, where did you go wrong?  Well, if you are, or soon will be, an NBA player, there are a number of appropriate answers to this question, for instance:

1)    If it’s during the NBA season, maybe the better decision would have been to stay at home and rest;

2)    You shouldn’t surround yourself with friends who regularly hangout in such environments;

3)    You should have immediately walked away from the situation, exiting the bar; or

4)    You should have hired professionals to accompany you and guard against such confrontations.

Now, these answers were likely obvious to many of you.  However, let me ask a much tougher question: do you know the possible legal ramifications of your actions in example one?  Unfortunately, a majority of you probably does not know the following answer to the question: common law battery constitutes an unlawful application of force to another, resulting in either bodily injury or an offensive touching.[1]  In many jurisdictions, merely laying a hand on another person rises to the level of offensive touching.  Moreover, battery is a general intent crime, meaning in order to be charged with or potentially convicted of the crime, you must only intend to act, not cause a specific result.  Therefore, in the first example, even if you only intended to lightly touch the other guy, if he reasonably felt offended or harmed by it, you could find yourself arrested and eventually inside a courtroom.

Let’s keep it moving.  With respect to the second example, the obvious answer as to where you went wrong is that you failed to actually learn anything substantive about your sexual partner.  What you may not know is that in New York State (and in many other U.S. States), a person under 17 years of age is legally incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse or other sexual contact.  Thus, in many jurisdictions, example two constitutes a statutory rape violation.  Because statutory rape is a strict liability crime, your ignorance regarding the woman’s age is irrelevant.  In other words, a court of law will not even address your state of mind in determining whether you committed the crime.

The third and final example unfortunately occurs too often.  Many people are ignorant to the fact that minimally aiding someone who commits a crime will get them in just as much trouble as the person who committed the crime.  Here, you were an accomplice to your friend’s burglary of the acquaintance’s home.  Burglary in New York and most U.S. States constitutes entering or remaining unlawfully in a building with the intent to commit a crime therein.  The crime that your friend intended to, and did eventually, commit is larceny, which, in its common law form, is a trespassory (wrongful and without permission) taking and carrying away of personal property of another with the intent of permanently depriving the owner.  Accomplice liability arises when a person intentionally aids or encourages another person in the commission of a crime.  The accomplice must actually intend that the crime occur.  In most jurisdictions, merely driving one to and/or from the scene of a crime rises to the level of accomplice liability.  Further, the Court typically finds the accomplice guilty of any crime the principle is guilty of committing.  Thus, in this example, a court of law likely would find you guilty of burglary, where it also convicts your friend of the crime.

A Day In Court Amounts To More Than A Day of Lost Wages

I provide the foregoing examples as proof that certain intentions, seeming so innocent, can effortlessly translate into imperfect actions.  For certain lucky individuals, these actions will be excused by present and/or future employers.  However, the professional athlete is rarely so lucky.  Professional athletes are akin to executive officers of a corporation; once the board of directors and shareholders (i.e., league commissioner, front office and fans) lose all of the confidence they once had in their leaders, the six to seven figure salaries dry up.  For instance, several prominent athletes have recently squandered guaranteed wages as a result of reasonably avoidable damage to their image:

Professional Athlete

Lost Wages

Tiger Woods As of July 2010, his endorsement deals had declined from $92 million to $70 million, including lost contracts with Gatorade, Accenture and AT&T.
Michael Vick As of August 2007, it was estimated that he would lose $100 million as a result of lost future salary, potential repayment of bonuses to the Falcons for defaulting on his contract, and endorsement money drying up.
Kobe Bryant He lost endorsement contracts with McDonalds, Nutella, and Coca-Cola, amounting to between $4 and $6 million of lost income.
Latrell Sprewell He lost the remaining three years of a four-year $32 million contract with the Golden State Warriors and a $500k-$700k per year endorsement contract with Converse.
O.J. Simpson He lost a $2.5 million per year endorsement contract with Hertz, his NFL commentary job with NBC, and his future appearances in the Naked Gun movie series.

Naturally, the question arises, what can future athletes do to avoid this dilemma?  First, at an early age, a person who intends to pursue a career in professional sports should be mindful of how his actions can adversely affect his image.  Second, he must realize that notwithstanding all of his hard work and the large player/endorsement contracts accompanying it, he has not earned the privilege to ignore the potential negative ramifications of his actions.  Third, he must seek out mentors who have been where he is going, as there’s plenty of truth to the old adage, “you are who you surround yourself with.”

– NRH


[1] Offensive touching loosely constitutes contact that a person of ordinary sensitivity would not permit.

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About nicholasrhector

I am an attorney and sports fanatic whose interests consist of sports law, sports media, and the the relationship between public relations/image cultivation and the professional athlete.

Posted on May 16, 2011, in Image, Sports and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Excellent article. Thought proving and appropriate for all readers. Looking forward to next article.

  2. hahahaha i think ohio state must fall under the category “young unprofessionals”

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