Putting Stars Behind Bars

How did breaking sports rules become a federal offense?

Before his untimely death in 2006, Logan Young faced six months in federal prison for “conspiracy to commit racketeering” and “crossing state lines to commit racketeering,” both felonies. While those charges made Young sound like a mafioso, his real offense was violating the recruiting rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Young, a businessman and old friend of the legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (who died in 1983), was a longtime booster of the University of Alabama football team, pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to the program over the years. In 2002 the NCAA levied stiff sanctions against the Crimson Tide after determining that Young had paid high school coaches in Memphis more than $100,000 to steer a prized recruit to Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama team was placed on probation and ordered to cut ties with one of its biggest fans.

Young’s troubles did not end there. University of Tennessee supporters and coaches had long complained that the booster was “buying players” in his home town of Memphis, making recruiting more difficult for U.T.’s athletic teams. Federal prosecutors in Memphis apparently sensed an opportunity for a popular prosecution, one that ultimately proved successful.

The conviction of Logan Young as “the first college sports booster sentenced to prison essentially for busting NCAA rules” (in the words of ESPN.com’s Mike Fish) is just one example of a disturbing trend: the federal criminalization of private rule breaking in the world of sports. Prosecutors are taking advantage of the drastic post-1970 expansion of the federal criminal code to conduct legal shaming exercises against notorious sporting figures, often using charges that are tangential at best to the behavior that sparked investigative interest in the first place. The results are a sobering reminder of just how little restraint remains on federal power when investigators set their sights on popular celebrity targets accused of unpopular rule breaking.

Former National Basketball Association (NBA) referee Tim Donaghy is serving a 15-month prison sentence for “conspiracy to engage in wire fraud” and “transmission of wagering information” across state lines, stemming from charges that Donaghy bet on games he refereed. The allegations triggered a national outcry and congressional inquiry. While the referee’s conduct (he pleaded guilty to improperly sharing inside information with bettors) was reprehensible, his worst offense was against his employer, the NBA, not “society,” and certainly not the state.

Former Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones served six months in federal prison last year for making false statements to two grand juries about her personal use of performance-enhancing steroids. As part of a highly unusual plea agreement, unrelated check fraud charges against Jones were dropped in return for her publicly admitting her past steroid use and retiring from the sport.

All-time Major League Baseball (MLB) home run leader Barry Bonds was scheduled to begin trial in March on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, based on his grand jury testimony in a steroid distribution case that closed in 2005 after producing just four minor convictions that netted seven months prison time combined (half as long as Bonds’ personal trainer served behind bars for criminal contempt after refusing to testify about his boss). At press time, yet another federal grand jury was hearing testimony about whether former MLB pitching great Roger Clemens committed perjury when he denied using steroids after being hauled in front of Congress in February 2008.

Perhaps most bizarre of all was the attempt that same month by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to launch a federal probe of allegations that the New England Patriots videotaped the practices and defensive signals of opposing teams in 2006 and 2007. While cheating in professional sports is worthy of exposure and condemnation, even if all the accusations levied against Patriots Coach Bill Belichick were true, the worst thing he could have been guilty of was violating the rules of the National Football League, a private organization.

Not long ago, public evidence of cheating or the loss of Olympic medals would have been disgrace enough for coaches or athletes. But today punishment is not considered complete until the offender has served a stretch in federal prison. For decades now, the growth of government power has turned everyday business and financial transactions into potential crimes, allowing prosecutors to throw an ever-expanding book at whatever public figure is deemed worthy of contempt. And few categories of Americans arouse more passion, or fall from grace more quickly, than wayward star athletes.

Derivative Crimes

When the U.S. Constitution was written, there were only three enumerated federal crimes: treason, piracy, and counterfeiting. But in the last four decades the list of federal offenses has grown into the thousands, driven by a sea change in the philosophy of criminal law and a newfound willingness by Congress to grant vast new powers to the executive branch.

Federal prosecutors can now pursue what we call “derivative crimes,” or official violations derived from other bad acts. The most notorious source of such charges is the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, or RICO. Prosecutors use RICO to bundle a series of state offenses into a federal “racketeering” charge, which in practice lowers the burden of proof on the government, since a prosecutor does not have to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant actually committed each of the underlying state offenses.

For instance, if a suspected mobster is prosecuted for “racketeering,” the government only has to show by a preponderance of the evidence, not beyond reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed underlying state law offenses (such as bribery, theft, etc.) which qualify as predicate acts under the RICO law. Racketeering is defined simply as the commission of two or more predicate acts within a span of 10 years.

Other popular derivative crimes include obstruction of justice, money laundering, conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud. While most of these carry draconian mandatory minimum sentences, the acts on which they are based, such as placing a telephone call or mailing a letter, are frequently innocuous. It is much easier to convince a jury that someone withdrew money from a bank in order to commit a crime than to prove the crime itself.

Succeeding waves of legislation, many of them tied to the drug war, have removed checks and balances by minimizing the discretion of federal judges and stacking the deck in favor of the prosecution in federal criminal trials. U.S. attorneys have almost limitless power to lock up Americans for the “crime” of drug possession. And by attaching criminal charges to an array of derivative activities (from depositing money in a bank to operating an otherwise above-board business), such investigations often result in convictions for offenses that have nothing to do with drug use, allowing federal prosecutors to reap the publicity benefits of nailing their target without having to produce evidence of drug-related crimes.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Abdul||

    I support the gist of the essay (there is too much federalization of crime), but the majority of the persons cited as examples in the essay as victims of this trend were in legal trouble for perjury. If we don't prosecute people who lie in court proceedings, what value will those proceedings have?

  • ||

    Most professional sports have chosen to be Federally controlled monopolies. That's why congress is always having hearings on this stuff.

    But tell the most ardent free market advocating sports fan that the NFL and MLB need to be unchartered, and they look at you like some dipwad on the dugout floor.

  • ||

    While Donaghy disgraced his profession and his employer, he primarily wronged the NBA and some gamblers in Las Vegas, not "society" or even the United States.

    Is Las Vegas no longer part of the United States?

  • ||

    I support the gist of the essay (there is too much federalization of crime), but the majority of the persons cited as examples in the essay as victims of this trend were in legal trouble for perjury. If we don't prosecute people who lie in court proceedings, what value will those proceedings have?

    Perhaps the underlying proceedings were illegitimate to begin with, because they were to enforce illegitimate laws.

    Perjury disconnected from any underlying offense is prosecutorial ass-covering and abuse.

  • ||

    Abdul-

    It is more important that the proceedings themselves are not a fraud.

  • ||

    R C Dean-

    You beat me to it.

  • Mike M.||

    The drug investigations by the government have become excessive, but I can't agree about Donaghy.

    The deliberate fixing of games, particularly at the professional level, has always been a big deal, and is even more so now than it was during the Black Sox scandal. There are incredible amounts of money and prestige on the line for the players, coaches, and franchises, and the fans who are spending their hard-earned time and money to watch what they believe are fair contests are being defrauded if the games are being fixed.

  • ||

    Raivo Pommer-estonia-www.google.ee

    raimo1@hot.ee

    Der Letzte Sansche


    Die Ultimaten laufen: Präsident Barack Obama hat dem maroden Autokonzern General Motors (GM) 60 Tage gegeben, um ein tragfähiges Zukunftskonzept vorzulegen. Chrysler hat nur 30 Tage bekommen. Danach drohen Insolvenzverfahren. Wie ernst es die Regierung meint, hat der langjährige GM-Chef Rick Wagoner erfahren: Ihm wurde im Weißen Haus der Rücktritt nahegelegt. Wagoner fügte sich.

    Es war eine Demonstration der Härte, was US-Präsident Barack Obama präsentierte. Wochenlang hatten seine Expertengruppe die Sanierungspläne von GM und Chrysler studiert, hatten verhandelt und gerechnet. Ihr Befund fiel vernichtend aus. Die Sanierungspläne der Konzerne? Völlig unzureichend. Die Geschäftsmodelle in Detroit? Überholt, verstaubt, erfolglos. Die Zukunft der Branche in den USA? Ziemlich düster.

  • SpongePaul||

    ok first of all congress and the goverment have no place in sports, which are PRIVATE organazations. Secondly if lying in congress or lying to congress is an actual crimanal offense. Then every single congressman and politician is a felon and should be removed post haste. and thirdly if thats a word. baseball did not test for steroids or specifacaly ban them until the mid to late 90's. therefore everything bonds canseco mgwire etc might or might have not done is not relevant, because according to baseball they were playing under the rules.

  • ||

    While Donaghy disgraced his profession and his employer, he primarily wronged the NBA and some gamblers in Las Vegas, not "society" or even the United States.

    Nay, nay. Some small time gamblers bet the under in games this fuckwad officiated. The were defrauded by Donaghy and the gamblers who bribed him.. He and the gamblers who paid him off stole innocent gamblers money. Surely fraud belongs in the category of prosecutable offenses.

    The Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, and the Alabama sports booster who's name isn't worth recalling* thingees are all bullshit, but cheating innocent sports book players isn't. Should Gaylord Perry have been prosecuted as well?

    * I have finite memory and choose try not to waste it on data irrelevant to my life.

  • Abdul||

    So it's okay to lie in a court proceeding if the issue that caused the court proceeding is not an issue that you think should be enforced by law?

    Again, if these sports figures had a reason for objecting to the proceeding, the best way to show it is to protest the proceeding, take the fifth, whatever. Lying is not a good, or legal, option.

  • dfd||

    So it's okay to lie in a court proceeding if the issue that caused the court proceeding is not an issue that you think should be enforced by law?

    Yes.

  • ||

    Again, if these sports figures had a reason for objecting to the proceeding, the best way to show it is to protest the proceeding, take the fifth, whatever. Lying is not a good, or legal, option.

    If you had read and comprehended the article you'd have noted

    Witnesses summoned by a federal grand jury, unlike those who testify in a criminal trial, do not have full Fifth Amendment rights to withhold potentially self-incriminating testimony. (Indeed, Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, spent 14 months in jail for refusing to testify.)


    that silence is "not a good, or legal, option" either.

  • charles||

    When you take perfomance enhancers that violate a sport's drug policy you get money that should essentially go to people who do not use them. Why isn't there a class action lawsuit from players who are clean?

  • SpongePaul||

    charles | March 30, 2009, 2:56pm | #

    When you take perfomance enhancers that violate a sport's drug policy you get money that should essentially go to people who do not use them. Why isn't there a class action lawsuit from players who are clean?
    _____________________________________________
    Because there is not 1 player in any sport who at some time or another for good reason or not used steroids or other PE'S. even minor league hockey guys use roids to recover faster, same with even baseball pitchers. from experince, i have never seen a 100% clean athlete, O i am sure they exist, but not rising above low minors.

  • mike farmer||

    let anyone, anytime, put anything, anywhere in their body they so choose, and then move along. Hell we have a president firing executives -- forget about ball players.

  • SpongePaul||

    let anyone, anytime, put anything, anywhere in their body they so choose, and then move along. Hell we have a president firing executives -- forget about ball players.
    ___________________________________
    Thats the exact though our founding fathers had

  • ||

    SpongePaul - This wouldn't be a problem if they were truly private, but they are not. They are Congressionally authorized cartels who routinely shake down local taxpayers for new stadiums.

  • SpongePaul||

    well thats the politicians fault for not following the Const. if they dont want to stay unless they get this and that and such, well then ok see ya. in a free market thats how it would work and taxpayers would never pay a dime.

  • SpongePaul||

    I like my saints i like my stars, but if they moved oh well, i would still be a fan, because what city a team hails from is meaningless in anything that counts.

  • B||

    "From our April issue, William L. Anderson and Candice E. Jackson look at how breaking sports rules became a federal offense."

    I see you have a picture of Barry Bonds up there. I am sorry, Barry Bonds did more than just break "sports rules", unless steroid possession and use without a prescription and lying to investigators are only violations of "sports rules".
    While it may be a waste of time and resources for the government to investigate this stuff, please don't pretend Barry Bonds isn't accused of doing more than committing MLB rules infractions.

  • Robert||

    Sports organizations (other than the USOC, which with its Congressional charter muscled the AAU out of any significant role in track & field) are not Congressionally authorized cartels. That canard might stem from a court ruling that Congress did not intend pro baseball to be considered a "business" where that word was used in the Sherman Act, because they would've been aware that the normal operation of pro baseball at that time would violate that act.

  • ||

    yes, unfortunately this issue is sticker than the mean Feddies vs. the upstanding, self-regulating private entity. Stadium construction is a virtual branch of local government, blurring some key lines. But any Federal expansion of power is still bullshit.

    also, the faux outrage at these pure endeavors reeks; I could drink Bonds' alleged cocktails for a decade and not be able to knock a ball out of the park. Retroactive micromanaging of "approved" training techniques for these veritable supermen is pure bureaucratic tinkering, and further evidence these organizations truly wish to appropriate more government strong-arming for their expansive notions.

  • nfl jerseys||

    nrwyw

  • nike shox||

    is good

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement