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Ray Duckler: Were Rice, Sterling, Peterson and Patriots railroaded?

Last modified: 3/7/2015 1:17:44 AM
The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Alan Milstein 13 years ago, revealing a self-described “sixties liberal” who loves Bob Dylan and the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert.

Move to Thursday, during a forum on sports law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and the New Jersey litigator was still shaking things up with against-the-grain thoughts.

One of seven writers and legal experts to appear, Milstein was anything but conventional. He relabeled deflategate “Ballghazi,” his way of saying that the investigation into cheating by the Patriots, like the examination of the attack in Benghazi, is “much ado about nothing.”

He speculated that Lebron James’s threatened boycott, a response to the recorded message exposing Donald Sterling’s bigotry, was choreographed to force Sterling out, and charges that the NFL’s perceived culture of violence against women is tinged with racism.

“I’m known for taking a different approach, sometimes controversial,” Milstein told me during the post-forum schmooze party outside the lecture hall.

The event was co-sponsored by UNH and Sports Illustrated. B.J. Schecter, executive editor of the magazine and its website, served as moderator, while UNH professor Mike McCann, SI’s legal analyst and an investigative reporter, were also on the panel.

So were Kimberly Myers, director of UNH’s criminal practice clinic; Robert Raiola, a New Jersey-based authority on sports business matters; Dan Wallach of Florida, an expert on gaming and sports law; and Warren Zola, a sports law attorney affiliated with Boston College.

Seated side-by-side in room 282, the magnificent seven examined sports news off the playing fields and courts, dissecting legal issues that have replaced scores and stats in recent months.

First off, Sterling, who was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after a clandestine recording revealed his 
racist feelings toward 

Before giving their opinions, the panelists made sure to state the obvious, that Sterling’s remarks, secretly taped at his home by a woman who called herself “his confidante, his best friend, his silly rabbit,” were despicable.

Then they splintered into different camps. McCann said the NBA had the right to force Sterling out because the league constitution said so.

“It set out 10 different circumstances in which the league could decide to issue suspensions of indefinite length,” McCann said. “Sterling caused harm to the league. Sponsors threatened to drop their affiliation with the Clippers.”

Added Zola: “He gave up a lot of those rights when he became an owner, period. It’s irrelevant if he obtained it illegally. We’re not in a criminal court system here.”

Hold on, argued Wallach, who preferred to view the larger context. Bugging someone’s private conversation and then using it to bring that person down?

Really? California has eavesdropping statutes, Wallach pointed out.

“The NBA had a problem with this type of evidence,” Wallach said. “The recording was done surreptitiously. Evidence obtained secretly without consent is inadmissable in court proceedings, and it’s inadmissable in administrative proceedings. How could the NBA justify a forced sale based on nothing other than inadmissible evidence?”

Milstein, of course, took a different path. He cited the fact that evidence of Sterling’s bigotry existed years ago.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy,” Milstein said. “They knew this guy was a racist for 10 years and they did nothing. TMZ releases the audio and then there is outrage?”

Which brings us to the age we’re in, the one with cell phones and social media and cameras, cameras, cameras.

We saw this in the case of Ray Rice, the football player suspended for two games after admitting that he knocked out his fiance with one punch.

Then TMZ, the modern-day Woodward and Bernstein, aired the actual left hook, captured in an elevator video, and, presto, Rice was suspended indefinitely.

“(Rice) divulging information was enough to make a decision on how the league should proceed,” Myers said. “Then all of a sudden this TMZ video is released and there is this public outcry and the court of public opinion kicks in and all of a sudden this additional punishment is levied on him. So for me it does set a dangerous precedence. I don’t know where the line stops.”

McCann is known for his baby face and quick smile, but even he had a cynical approach here, saying, “Leagues are responding in a way that reflects how much damage the controversy causes. It’s more about harm inflicted upon the league’s reputation than it is the underlying act.”

Preferential treatment, of course, came up, too. Did Rice get off easy because he’s a rich, famous football player? Myers said yes.

“In New Hampshire, there would have been felonies even with no prior records and if the victim was not on board with prosecution,” she noted. “I guarantee prosecutors here would have fought tooth and nail. . . . I don’t think he would have gotten away with community service, a minimal fine and a 26-week program.”

Wallach expanded on this theory, adding that Rice should not have been offered counseling based on the nature of his crime. If you saw the video, you know what he means.

“A pretrial diversion program excludes violent acts,” Wallach said. “And certainly cold cocking your significant other, knocking her out, dragging her by the hair across a casino floor, would seem to rise to the case of a violent act that would and should ordinarily exclude him from participation in this pretrial diversion program.”

Milstein’s take here? Glad you asked.

The Rice case, along with the indictment of Adrian Peterson for physically abusing his 4-year-old son, has shed light on something else, Milstein claimed.

Rice and Peterson, he reminded us, are both black, and a harmful generalization has surfaced since both players got in trouble.

“You saw a lot of white commentators, particularly white female commentators, try to paint the NFL as if it were a league of thugs, as if domestic violence was rampant within the NFL, when actually the statistics are just the opposite,” Milstein said. “The amount of individuals in the NFL who have been accused of domestic violence was less than the population as a whole. Typically the people who are being talked about are African-Americans, and I’m certainly uncomfortable with that kind of conversation.”

Other issues were discussed. Did Spygate and thus a tarnished reputation lead to unfair scrutiny of the Patriots?

Of course, Raiola said.

Did James really intend to boycott games if Sterling kept control of his team?

Of course not, said Milstein, who sniffed a conspiracy and cited Roswell and a grassy knoll.

“I think what was going on is it was a deal that was made before the NBA supposedly was so outraged,” Milstein said. “Like,‘You know what, we’re not going to play, and that will give you pretty good reason to throw this bum out of here.’ ”

The forum lasted nearly two hours. Only once did anything truly connect to the on-the-field part of sports, and it was a breath of fresh air after so much legal stuff.

It concerned Peterson.

“He will play next season for the Dallas Cowboys,” Milstein said. “Just wait and see.”

Then Milstein smiled, as though he knew something no one else did.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter 


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