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Sunday, August 19, 2007
Thoughts on Michael Vick, Tim Donaghy, and Baseball Umpires' Implicit Attitudes

Here are some thoughts I have on new developments concerning Michael Vick, Tim Donaghy, and Baseball Umpires' implicit attitudes:

Michael Vick

Various articles today indicate that Vick and his legal team are debating whether he should accept a plea deal that would call for a 12 to 18 month sentence in a federal prison, or go to trial. There are myriad factors for Vick to consider, including that his co-defendants have already agreed to plead guilty, but also that it can be hard for the government to convince every member of a jury that a defendant is "beyond a reasonable doubt" guilty, particularly when the defendant has almost limitless litigation resources at his disposal and a top legal team to utilize them. And, as we have discussed on this blog, there are potential questions as to how the evidence against Vick was obtained.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News has an interesting take on Vick's trial: Were the NFL and the Falcons in any way aware of Vick's association with dog fighting, and if so, should they also bear responsibility? Purdy wonders if this was a case of "see no evil, hear no evil," with Vick's employers tacitly acquiescing to the dog fighting, only to feign surprise and outrage when Vick was charged. In developing that argument, Purdy quotes Deion Sanders, who claims that many NFL players have a passion for dog fighting. If Sanders is telling the truth, I question why the NFLPA, in addition to the NFL and its teams, hasn't (apparently) sufficiently tried to dissuade its members from engaging in that behavior. I know it is difficult for unions to impose behavioral restrictions on their members, but sometimes eliminating a nefarious hobby is in both the individual and collective good.

The Austin Statesman examines how Vick's personal situation, and especially the lifelong friends he took care of but have now betrayed him, contributed to his legal problems. Along those lines, it's easy to look at Vick in the abstract and savage what appear to be terrible and disgusting decisions--I admit to doing that at times over the last couple of months--but his good guy/bad guy rating seems more complicated when considering his extraordinary loyalty to those who may have led him into a bad situation. That's obviously not to say he doesn't deserve an appropriate punishment if guilty, but there's a part of me who sympathizes with someone who didn't ditch his childhood friends or abandon his past just to become a "mainstream" American star--a mainstream that is probably more tolerant of certain types of childhood friends than those who Vick grew up with. And Vick has employed many of those friends in various capacities, providing them otherwise unavailable employment opportunities. But unfortunately for him, his loyalty wasn't reciprocated, and in hindsight, it may prove to be his undoing.

Gary Myers of the New York Daily News assesses Vick's prospects for future NFL employment. Some have argued that Vick's future in the NFL is over. I couldn't disagree more, and Myers lays out why Vick will almost certainly play again in the NFL. I think he sums it up best with this exchange:
Here's how one GM predicts a conversation would go with his coach if Vick was a free agent after getting out of jail:

GM: "Michael Vick is available for the veteran minimum."

Coach: "Let's bring him in."

Tim Donaghy

Chris Mannix over on outlines how new information provided by Donaghy, who apparently is prepared to name as many as 20 referees who have been involved with some of form gambling, could prove disastrous for David Stern. Will Stern have to suspend or fire 20 referees? Will he have to retract his brazen "rogue, isolated criminal" characterization of Donaghy? When does Congress get involved? At what point are there too many individual wrongdoers who work for the NBA for the NBA to pass all of the blame on to them?

Joe Duffy on Eye on Gambling questions how many are using data about point spreads in Donaghy's games. Interesting piece, as Duffy believes that no empirically-valid connection has been shown yet.

If you are interested in legal issues concerning Tim Donaghy and the NBA, I will be guest tonight on Celtics Stuff Live between 7 and 9 p.m. EST. I look forward to being on the show, and more details about listening to the show are available here (and thanks to JB for the kind write-up of Sports Law Blog and me).

Implicit Attitudes and Baseball Umpires

Over on The Situationist, we examine a new study indicating how baseball umpires may alter their strike zones based on the race or ethnicity of the pitcher. Previous Situationist posts have discussed the significance of implicit associations (a key feature of the human animal’s “interior situation”), including “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Black History is Now” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen.” Our new piece collects summaries of a number of recent studies suggesting how routinely implicit associations may bias decision making even among those individuals presumed to be least biased.


Michael Vick is in trouble because of who Michael Vick is:

Intentionally spreading herpes.

Taking drugs, or at least a bottle used to hide drugs, into an airport.

Killing dogs.

Hardly a track record that would lead you to say it is his friends that led to his bad decisions/behavior.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/19/2007 12:25 PM  

The Falcons were shocked, *shocked*, to find out that Ron Mexico had been gambling (and sponsoring dog fighting and killing dogs.)

Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on here!
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once.

Anonymous Draft King -- 8/19/2007 3:10 PM  


I find the argument that the NFL bears some responsibility for Vick's situation to be off the mark. The Falcons employ Vick, as well as several dozen other players. They are not babysitters, counselors or therapists. My employer is not legally or even morally responsible for my out-of-work activities. Respondeat superior does not go, nor should go that far.

If Vick is guilty (there has been no deal nor a conviction), then he made his bed and he has to sleep in it.

Blogger Mark Conrad -- 8/19/2007 4:34 PM  

Thanks for these comments.


It's not clear to what extent the power of groups has influenced Vick's decision-making. Certainly, as social psychology and related mind sciences teach us, we have a default tendency to underestimate the influence of situation on others' actions and overestimate the influence of their disposition. That tendency, along with others, comprise the fundamental attribution error: the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.

So when you cite selected events in Vick's life, I would want to know much more about the context and circumstances of those events before I dismissed the relevance of his friends on his behavior.

Draft King,

Interesting points about what the Falcons may have known, and whether their public reaction is genuine.


I agree with your legal conclusion that neither the Falcons nor the NFL are likely to bear vicarious liability for Vick's alleged actions.

But I disagree that Vick's actions can be entirely explained by his disposition ("he made his bed and he has to sleep in it"). To me, that's too reliant on a rational actor model explanation that has been debunked by empirical findings in social psychology and neuroscience. Along those lines, if the NFL, the NFLPA, and the Falcons, all knew what was going on and took no steps to discourage it, they, in my view, helped to enable a deleterious situation. That's not to excuse Vick, but it is to suggest that blame might be shared by more than just one person.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 8/19/2007 7:11 PM  

Prof. McCann:

Your last point about the NFL's and the Falcon's culpability makes quite a leap. I can see how those who encourage illegal activity should be seen as morally and legally culpable. (Indeed, that is one of the foundations of accomplice liability in criminal law.) But it's another thing entirely to say that knowledge alone is sufficient to create culpability (criminal or moral).

The implicit assumption in your argument is that everyone has a moral duty to actively combat any conduct they view as wrongful. If they don't, then they're morally culpable enablers who bear "responsibility" for the actions they knew about, but did not do anything about. That is a sweeping concept of moral culpability that must be justified on its own terms, not merely asserted as an implicit premise.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/19/2007 8:33 PM  

I don't think it matters if the Falcons, or the NFL knew of the Vick situation. I think it creates bigger problems for both if they begin selectively advising players on the many and varied legal risks they face.

Do you advise regarding binge drinking but not possible tax issues? Do you advise that the home remodel project requires a construction permit but not advise that the car he rolls up to camp in has windows with darker tint than is legal? Really opens too many worm cans to determine the proper level of shepherding to impose on employees when it has no direct (at least pre-indictment) impact on job performance.

NFLPA on the other hand comes closer to having a stake that might encourage them to get involved. The Association markets the likeness of players for several purposes and have some level of fiduciary duty to preserve that value.

When we move into the realm of psychology and what influences non-job actions we are sliding out the realm of the legal relationship between player and management, unless one wishes to argue that the results of such studies should be shaped the future course of the law.

As a legal discussion topic though, I don't see the possibility of the Falcons, the NFL or even NFLPA being engaged in willful ignorance as terribly relevant legal topics, unless they begin engaging in selective willful ignorance.

Blogger Mark -- 8/20/2007 11:09 AM  


Vick has reportedly accepted a plea agreement that includes some jail time.

Blogger Mark -- 8/20/2007 2:55 PM  

On Vick: Minimum salary or no, his career is over. Keep in mind that any team that even flirts with Vick in the future is likely going to face a huge backlash from its dog-loving fans, not to mention regular animal-rights protests at all their games and maybe even outside their practice facilities. What team would be willing to put up with all that just to give a second chance to a federal felon who's been out of the league for 2-3 years and well past his physical prime, not to mention whatever additional baggage Vick might take on while in prison?

On Donaghy: If it's true that he's going to rat out more referees, whether it actually affected officiating really doesn't matter at this point - the NBA's image is officially in free fall, even if it wasn't already, and nothing David Stern can do to these referees will stop it.

I gamble, even on sports from time to time, and generally take a dim view of government prohibition of such. But I have no problem whatsoever with sports leagues prohibiting gambling by their own personnel - after all, the leagues are primarily responsible for preserving the integrity of their own sports, and should be free to do so as they see fit. In the wake of the Donaghy and Vick cases, I would be neither surprised nor dismayed to see the NBA, NFL and other leagues adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward all betting, legal or illegal, sports or non-sports, in or out of season, by any league personnel.

On the umpires: I haven't followed baseball very closely since the strike of '94, so unlike Vick, I have no dog in this fight (so to speak).

Blogger Joshua -- 8/20/2007 11:53 PM  

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