Commentary

Stranger than fiction: Sports and law

The Barry Bonds case, the NFL lockout and FIFA make for a wacky world

Originally Published: June 2, 2011
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

It's a mixed-up, shook-up sports world. At least, that's the way the sports world looks from our Courtside Seat. And the weirdness has never been more apparent than recently. Lawyers previously at each other's courtroom throats maybe making nice in the way of a settlement? Legal lockout propaganda that defies belief? Corruption that may know no bounds? Wow. Just … wow. Today, we start with …

No more Mr. Not-Nice Guys

Consider, please, these two recent surprises:

• A gracious and generous act of charity from Barry Bonds.

• A highly uncharacteristic agreement between federal prosecutors and Bonds' lawyers to postpone a court hearing.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNo question that Barry Bonds' gesture to the Bryan Stow family is magnanimous. How well will it play in front of the judge?

Add these two unexpected developments together, and a suspicion grows that settlement talks might be under way to bring an end to the Bonds perjury prosecution.

A week ago, Bonds announced that not only was he donating $10,000 to the fund for Bryan Stow, the Giants fan who was savagely beaten in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on Opening Day, but he would pay for college educations for Stow's two children (Tyler, 12, and Tabitha, 8).

This is the same Barry Bonds who, in response to questions about payments to personal trainer Greg Anderson, proudly told a federal grand jury that he is "one black man who was keeping his money."

Bonds' gifts to the Stow family came shortly after his lawyers and federal prosecutors agreed to postpone a court hearing on the possible retrial of three charges against Bonds on which a jury was unable to reach unanimous verdicts. (He was found guilty on one count of obstruction of justice at his trial in April.) Although the Bonds courthouse saga seems interminable, the attorneys have rarely been responsible for the delays. Both sides always have been ready, even eager, for their courtroom battles. The hearing on the possible retrial is set for June 24.

None of the lawyers will discuss it, but it's possible they are discussing a settlement that would resolve all issues and end the BALCO investigation.

If, for example, Bonds would waive his right to appeal on the obstruction conviction, the government could waive its right to a new trial on the remaining charges. His lawyers are sure to submit material (possibly a letter from a relative) about his dramatic support of the Stow family to U.S. District Judge Susan Illston, and that  coupled with Judge Illston's record in similar cases  could be part of an agreement that likely would have Bonds facing only a time of home confinement and some probation. It's the kind of thing that helps at sentencing.

As reasonable as that sort of settlement might be, there would be one remaining problem: the possibility of additional charges against Anderson, who already has served two federal penitentiary terms for his refusals to testify against Bonds before the grand jury and at the trial.

[+] EnlargeGreg Anderson
David Paul Morris/Getty ImagesGreg Anderson has already served time on a number of occasions, and he might not be out of the woods yet.

It is entirely possible that prosecutors Matthew Parrella and Jeff Nedrow could ask a grand jury to charge Anderson with criminal contempt. The federal criminal code in Section 401 (3) defines criminal contempt as "disobedience or resistance" to any "lawful order" of a federal court. There is little doubt that Anderson disobeyed court orders when he refused to testify.

Mark Geragos, the Los Angeles attorney defending Anderson, told reporters at the Bonds trial in March that he expected an additional charge against Anderson.

Although there are no federal guidelines for sentencing on a criminal contempt charge, there are previous cases of criminal contempt that indicate a sentence of two years. This might not be a fair straight-across comparison, of course, but in a 2001 prosecution in Chicago for criminal contempt against Sharif Alwan, a shadowy member of Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs Gaza, the sentence was 24 months of incarceration, a sentence that was approved on appeal by a higher court.

It would be difficult and a bit tricky for Bonds' attorneys and the prosecutors to discuss the Anderson situation, but there might be a connection. There is no doubt that Anderson's refusals to testify were major benefits for Bonds, helping Bonds avoid convictions on the perjury charges. If Bonds accepts the conviction on the obstruction charge, it might be a factor in the government's continuing interest in Anderson. At any rate, it would be easy for the prosecutors to make their decision on Anderson simultaneously with their discussions of a Bonds settlement.

Lawyers like to refer to these discussions as "global settlements." It makes everyone feel important, and the settlement resolves all pending issues.

Can it happen? Yes, it can happen and might be happening. If Bonds is donating substantial sums to the Stow family, anything can happen.

Role model for NFL owners. Not!

For nearly three months, we've listened to the posturing and rhetoric about the NFL lockout from both sides of the dispute. The players claim that they, and only they, are in the right. The owners are dug in and defending their positions just as vigorously and stubbornly. Courtside Seat tries to be fair in its criticism, and there's been plenty of that to spread around to all the parties to this quarrel. Both sides, in other words, have got it coming. But in the case of the particular development that has our attention today, it is incumbent on us to point out a fallacy that reflects poorly on just one side: ownership.

The owners' lockout propaganda reached a new level of implausibility recently when National Hockey League owners filed a "friend of the court" brief in the players' lawsuit challenging the legality of the lockout.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that in the brief, the NHL owners say the NFL owners are right and the NFL players are wrong. Written by a lawyer who has represented the NFL in numerous court cases, the NHL brief describes the NHL as a model of a "stable and mature collective bargaining relationship."

[+] EnlargeAlan Eagleson
AP Photo/Chitose SuzukiAlan Eagleson, former NHLPA executive director, as part of an NHL role model for the NFL? Astounding.

That's right -- the NHL as a model of how things are supposed to work. Look to the NHL, the brief asserts, to see how the relationship between labor and management should function.

This is the same NHL whose efforts at "stable and mature collective bargaining" led to the loss of an entire season as the result of an owners' lockout that began in 2004.

In a breathtaking bit of legalistic legerdemain, the NHL tells the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit that the NHL's history is "characterized by hard, good-faith negotiations in the context of a bona fide labor process." That's a wholly accurate quote from the NHL owners' brief. And it's a wholly inaccurate statement of the league's labor history.

Nowhere in their brief do the NHL owners mention Alan Eagleson, who founded the NHL players' union and served as its leader for 25 years. In his representation of the players, Eagleson set standards for collusion and corruption that might never be equaled. His frauds upon the players are among the greatest frauds in the history of sports.

Eagleson once gave the owners permission to remove $40 million from the player pension fund, an action that retired players attacked successfully in a lawsuit in Toronto. And, at the end of Bobby Orr's career, Eagleson made a deal for Orr with the Blackhawks that cost Orr an ownership share of the Boston Bruins.

After his chicanery was finally exposed in a remarkable series of articles by Russ Conway in the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune, Eagleson was indicted in Canada and the U.S. He entered a plea of guilty in Canada but never responded to the charges in Boston. He went to prison, was disbarred and was removed from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

When he was informed that the NHL was offering its labor experience to judges making important decisions in the NFL lockout litigation, the loquacious Conway, who replaced Eagleson in the Hall of Fame, was speechless. Finally, from his retirement home in Florida, Conway could say only, "You've got to be kidding."

But, of course, no one is kidding. Proudly and without apology, NHL owners offer their league's history of shady dealings and collusive bargaining, along with a season-long lockout, as examples of a sports league at its finest.

Jobbery, malfeasance and graft. Oh my

As a lawyer, I worked in the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago. As a journalist, I've reported on the exploits of the aforementioned Eagleson, the Major League Baseball collusion conspiracy and the Winter Olympics bid scandal in Salt Lake City. I've seen fraud and bribery in their most exquisite forms, and I consider myself a connoisseur of corruption. I thought I'd seen it all. But the folks involved with FIFA are surprising me.

[+] EnlargeSepp Blatter
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSepp Blatter is still in charge of FIFA. He has some work to do.

FIFA is giving Eagleson, whose exploits might have been the greatest frauds in the history of sports, a run for his money.

FIFA officials, according to numerous reports, are buying and selling votes in a bull market. Suspicions abound over the votes that awarded World Cups to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022. And they look like just a warm-up next to FIFA's election of its president this week.

In his challenge to incumbent FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Mohammed bin Hammam of Qatar and another official are reported to have offered $40,000 cash to each of 24 voters. Some reports indicate there are photographs of the money and the voters.

Other voters reportedly wanted, among other things, $4 million for an "education center," an honorary knighthood and $800,000 for the World Cup television rights in Haiti. Haiti?!

The officials who were accused of offering $40,000 per vote have been suspended. It is not clear whether they were suspended for bribery or because the offer was too low. The American official who reported them was fired. Or was he? It is not clear whether the official who fired the snitch had the authority to fire him.

It's a fine mess, and it might require a rewriting of the sports corruption record book.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »