When Joe Shearin played professional football in the mid-1980s, athletes seemed a little more invincible.
Stories often bounced around the locker room of a teammate getting busted for driving intoxicated. However, the offense was often met not with an arrest but with a personal police escort home once the officer realized he pulled over a sports figure.
“That elevated that player to a higher position of admiration among his teammates, getting away with certain things,” said Shearin, a Dallas native and attorney who spent the 1983-87 seasons playing center and guard for the Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys.
Today, news cycles often feature sports scandals, many for domestic violence issues.
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Much to their dismay, the NFL has been center stage recently in such cases involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ray McDonald and current Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy. Rice and Hardy had their cases dismissed.
McDonald, who was signed by the Bears in March and released two months later, was indicted on Aug. 26. He will be arraigned Sept. 25.
McDonald’s arrest again put domestic violence by NFL players into the spotlight.
“We give them a lot of privileges,” defense attorney Toby Shook said. “But, with that, anytime they fall off the pedestal we put them on, comes very harsh judgment and oftentimes a rush to judgment, so they will be held to the higher standard at times and judged more harshly in the media and in the court of public opinion.”
Arrests of professional athletes usually involves a small segment of athletes. A USA Today database of NFL player arrests dating to 2000 puts the figure at just over 2.5 percent of the players having serious run-ins with the law in an average year.
Shook, who spent more than 20 years as a prosecutor in the Dallas district attorney’s office before becoming a criminal defense lawyer, points to the 1995 O.J. Simpson case, the double-murder of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ronald Goldman, when it comes to domestic violence.
“After that crime is when you saw the beginnings of a movement to raise awareness of domestic violence and to prosecute,” he said. “The district attorney’s office started forming special units training prosecutors and police officers to make these arrests and aggressively prosecute them.”
Today, it doesn’t take a blockbuster trial to move the national needle on awareness. Technological advances in video surveillance, plus the plethora of cellphones with cameras, put almost every activity within someone’s view.
In last year’s Rice incident, video surfaced of the running back punching his then-fiancee, now wife, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The evidence was indisputable.
“The fact that we have video, whether it’s hand-held video or security video, has changed everything,” former State District Judge turned defense attorney John Creuzot said. “You get to see exactly what happened. There are no more excuses. There is no more denial. That has made accountability much higher for everybody, including an athlete. You can’t get away with it.”
With video, a District Attorney’s office can choose to prosecute even if the victim attempts to have the case dismissed, which is a common occurrence in domestic violence cases, Shearin, now a criminal defense attorney, said.
Hardy’s case, which did not have video, was dismissed in the legal system, but he was suspended 10 games by the NFL. The suspension was reduced to four games in July. He said recently that he would not take action to get the suspension reduced further.
Hardy will miss games against the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. He is not allowed to practice or attend meetings during his suspension. Hardy is scheduled to returnon Oct. 5, the Monday before the Week 5 game against the New England Patriots.
While the court of public opinion can criticize at will, it’s a different landscape in a court of law where jurors are face-to-face with celebrities.
“Even though you have harsh public opinion, juries are much more forgiving of them in an actual trial,” he said.
In part because of these high-profile cases involving athletes, the awareness of domestic violence has risen among the general public. In the case of the NFL, the league has instituted domestic violence and sexual assault education programs for all players and league employees.
Shearin says more can be done, particularly by the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“They’ve got this brand that they are trying to protect and it’s disappointing to me that it’s just taken them the last year or so to finally draw some people in and seek out resources of experts and different people to help reform an overall policy regarding, specifically, domestic violence-type cases,” Shearin said. “It’s only been because [Goodell] has dropped the ball and, quite frankly, I think he’s looked foolish on several occasions, specifically the Ray Rice situation.”