The League

Michael Oriard
Author

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

No Fair League?

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A major problem in this era of millionaire celebrity athletes is their sense of entitlement, their apparent assumption that they're different from the rest of us and not governed by the same laws and rules. When they break those laws, they should be treated like the rest of us; no better, no worse. On this basis, convicted felons who do their time should not be excluded from meaningful employment for the rest of their lives. As a society we are committed to both punishment and rehabilitation.

But these millionaire celebrity athletes are, in fact, different from the rest of us; or rather, they work in an industry different from the ones in which most of us work.

Plaxico Burress has been indicted on three counts, with minimum sentences of 3½ years on two of them and of one year on the third. He's 31 years old. If convicted, the passing of time rather than the NFL would probably determine whether he could return to the league. If acquitted, Roger Goodell and the owners of 31 clubs would decide (the Giants have presumably already done so).

By the principle that NFL players should be treated like the rest of us, Burress should have an opportunity to resume meaningful employment. By the reality that the NFL is different from the organizations that employ most of the rest of us, Goodell and the owners have the right to decide whether that employment will be in the NFL.

Burress's case so far is similar to Michael Vick's, though the crimes for which he will be tried are considerably less shocking. He seems guilty of bad judgment, not an appalling indifference to suffering. The charges involve technicalities, not vicious acts (the gun legally purchased in Florida, but the permit expired and not legal in New York or New Jersey in any case). He harmed no one but himself. If Goodell can allow Vick to return, surely he would allow Burress as well. But whether any owner will give Vick a chance remains to be seen, and Burress faces the same uncertainty.

That uncertainty is appropriate. Burress would be "entitled" to an opportunity for employment, but not necessarily in the NFL. The NFL is a professional football league, but it also is a brand that generates over $7 billion a year, about 60 percent of which goes to players such as Plaxico Burress. There is no brand without the players, but no single player is essential to the brand.

If Burress would be a good teammate and valuable performer, I personally would have no problem with his return to the NFL after receiving fairness from the courts, whatever that fairness may entail. But I have to acknowledge the NFL's right to protect its extraordinarily profitable brand. If too many fans would be outraged by the return of a convicted, or even an indicted, felon (what Burress did seems not in dispute, only what will result in his trial), the NFL and its individual clubs have the right to weigh the potential fallout. I hope, and would think, that fans would be forgiving. But forgiveness is different from simple fairness, which takes on strange forms in a world governed by markets. And that includes the world of the NFL.

By Michael Oriard  |  August 4, 2009; 6:26 AM ET  | Category:  Crime , New York Giants , Plaxico Burress , Roger Goodell Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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