Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, and Michael Rasmussen: Who Gets the Benefit of the Doubt?

Sports is supposed to be a distraction from the world of law and politics, and at least for a few hours it performed that function for Iraqis encouraged by the success of their national soccer team in the Asian Cup (before car bombs exploded in Baghdad, bringing them back to their terrible reality). But 'round these parts I'm hardly the first to notice how much of the sports page is taken up with law these days.

Let's start with Michael Vick. As a vegan and a dog lover, I'm certainly horrified by the acts that Vick stands accused of committing. And despite the presumption of innocence that I would be bound to apply if I were a juror in Vick's case, I strongly suspect that Vick knew what was occurring on his property. As Sherry Colb noted in this FindLaw column five years ago---in another sports-related case---the presumption of innocence does not apply to non-jurors.

Still, where an employee stands accused of committing acts that, while criminal, have no direct bearing on his fitness for the job, there are sound reasons for the employer not to suspend him. This, I take it, was the logic behind permitting Kobe Bryant to continue to play basketball when he was charged with rape. (The charges were ultimately dropped.)

Conversely, if an employee's alleged crime (or other misdeed) does affect his ability to perform, then a credible accusation may be all that should be needed to dismiss him. A day care center would be justified in suspending an employee indicted for child molestation. Likewise, Rabobank was within its rights in dismissing Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen when it figured out that Rasmussen had been dishonest about his whereabouts when he should have been tested for doping.

But if the decisions to play Bryant and to bench Rasmussen made sense, then the decisions to bench Vick and to celebrate Barry Bonds as he closes in on Hank Aaron's career home run record do not make sense. Is an accusation of dog fighting so much worse than a rape accusation? Are performance-enhancing drugs so much more common in baseball than in cycling, where they appear to be in every racer's water bottle? I offer a (figurative) gold star to any reader who can offer a principle that rationalizes the treatment of these athletes. (The answer "these decisions were made by different people in different organizations," will not be a winning entry. That will be my conclusion if nobody has a persuasive rationalization.)