Ethical Dilemma

In 1993 I wrote an ethics textbook designed to provoke thought in undergraduates and at the same time suggest that it is possible to think about ethical issues –not just emote. The book did not sell particularly well but was later picked up by a larger publisher and is still in print and selling fairly well (which amazes me no end). But one of the things I was particularly pleased about in that book was the final chapter which consisted of a number of case studies in fields as far apart as medicine and business — though those two are not so far apart these days. One of the categories was sports and I included a case that was actually based on a young man who had played football at the university where I taught — a “small potatoes” football team with a top-line player. The example changes his name but is based on what actually happened to that young man. I place it here to provoke thought (!) and to raise the question of whether what is legal is always necessarily moral or ethical.

At the age of 17 William”Willie” Smith was caught dealing drugs in his home state of Florida. While he was awaiting trial he enrolled at a local Junior Colleege and later transferred to a four-year university in Minnesota to complete his degree and play football — which he did very well. In the interim he was tried and found guilty of the drug charge, but he was given a delayed sentence to allow him to complete his college degree. After the completion of his degree he was to serve a nine year sentence.

Willie’s understanding was that his case would be reviewed at the end of his college career and that he would almost certainly be placed on probation (and not sent to jail) if he kept his nose clean — which he did. He continued to work on his degree and he played football so well he was drafted by an N.F.L. team in the ninth round. When it was announced that he had been drafted a reporter form his home town ran a story about his brush with the law and his later success. In the ensuing confusion the judge who had tried Willie’s case three years previously held  a press conference and, noting that athletes should not be given special treatment, repeated her ruling that Willie was to serve nine years in prison as soon as he completed his degree. The N.F.L. team that had drafted Willie immediately announced the they were no longer interested in Willie.

Did the judge do the right thing? What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Ethical Dilemma

  1. Dr. Curtler,

    While I do believe the sentence was too long for the offense committed, which is another discussion,

    I agree with the judge that an athlete should be given no special treatment under the law, which raises the question of why she treated him as a special case in the first place. I also think the judge’s conduct in this matter should be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

    If we truly are a country in which no one is above the law, then judges must act as if that were the case.

    The law may be an ass, as Dickens once wrote, but it is the law, nonetheless — both for judges and athletes.

    A thought-provoking case, but not a hard call for me to make.

    Regards and respects,

    Jerry Stark

    • I felt the young man had proved his worth and sending him to jail would be a mistake — for a number of reasons. I would have thought you a bit more sympathetic (especially since he was a fellow-alum!!).

      • I believe I see your point.

        My response was dictated by my starting points: The conviction and the sentence. In other words, the law. These are the fixed points of legal reference in the case. The rest is conduct.

        Historical and structural arguments here about mandatory minimum sentences and the War on Drugs, centrally important as they are, have little bearing once the conviction and sentence were handed down. Further, for all we know, the judge may have been facing an election when the final “hard-line” ruling was announced. There is much to question here, to be sure.

        If one were to begin not from fixed legal facts, but from the recognition of personal redemption through conduct and the hope for favorable judicial conduct though post-sentencing discretion, then the case becomes more cloudy.

        This is a sad case where (1) the law was followed, such as it is, (2) the person convicted acted well during a period of sentencing reprieve, and (3) the judge acted questionably by (a) allowing the reprieve in the first place, AND (b) by acting as if the young man’s conduct during his sentencing reprieve was irrelevant, after the fact.

        Focusing on the conduct of the young man and the judge leads one to raise a number of issues warranting review, in my estimation. The entire issue is cloudy.

        Focusing on the law, that is, the hard boundaries of the case, leads one to a more clear and direct conclusion. Brutal but clear and direct.

        I just followed the straightest line through the case as it presented itself — and that can be a hard business.

        I wish things had turned out far more favorably for this young man. I also wish I could say I am surprised that they did not.

        Regards and respects,

        Jerry Stark

      • As you say, “the issue is cloudy.” This is why I picked it for the book! There are no simple answers though there are simple minds making decisions that affect others.

  2. Hugh, was the young man’s understanding correct, that if he kept his nose clean, the sentence would be revisited. I agree athletes should not be given special treatment, but they usually are “while they are of value to someone.” Once that value is over, they can fall into ordinary life. Keith

    • I suspect he was assured by his lawyer that he would be on probation.I doubt at 17 he was aware of what was going on! I also agree that athletes should not be given special treatment, but I also believe that justice demands compassion.

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