Thursday, April 14, 2011

Presidents, Pardons and Athletes

In honor of Barry Bonds, a repost from July of 2008:

I recently chatted with an enthusiastic and well-informed reporter about professional athletes and the pardon power. The interview was, of course, prompted by speculation regarding baseball's Roger Clemens (who has not been convicted of anything) and former track and field star Marion Jones (who received a 6-month sentence for lying to federal investigators). There is also a long-standing call for the pardon of deceased boxer Jack Johnson (who was charged with violating the Mann Act). The discussion gave me a chance to reflect on my memories of athletes and the pardon power. Having personally gone through the clemency warrants of thousands of individuals from 1789 to 2001, word by word, those memories were actually more distinct than I might have guessed.

Athletic prowess seemed to first show up in warrants in the 1800s. My memory is that they involved private foot-races, where individuals placed bets, or illegal fights of some sort. In some instances such events were actually rigged, so fraud was piled on top of gambling in prosecutions. My memory is also that these offenses were generally committed in the District of the Columbia, where the president exercises the pardon power much like a state governor.

The first appearance of more wide-scale, organized athletic events that I recall was during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. It stood out in my mind because Roosevelt was a boxing fan and the pardons were for a couple of boxers. Roosevelt also pardoned John L. Lennon, the nephew of boxing legend John L. Sullivan (who lobbied for the grant personally and without even an ounce of criticism from the media). I am not certain if that is a comment on Roosevelt, Sullivan or the media of the day.

Since the good old days, the stories of numerous athletes have appeared in clemency applications and warrants. Racing greats Junior Johnson (NASCAR legend) and Rick Hendrick (the "King of NASCAR") have received presidential pardons. Stunt pilot Laura H. Ingalls tried to secure a pardon for years, but never succeeded. She had been attached to the Nazis, so it was a tough sell. Joe Don Looney was a standout at the University of Oklahoma and an interesting character in the National Football league. He was pardoned for drug possession. Charles "Tex" Harrison was an All-American at North Carolina Central University and became a Harlem Globetrotter. Eventually he became the coach of the Globetrotters. This blog has also reported on former Kansas City Royals star Willie Mays Aikens who had pardon applications declined by both Clinton and Bush. Of course, there are others that are around the edges of the world of athletics - George Steinbrenner (who made illegal contributions to the campaign of Richard Nixon), Jimmy "the Greek" (pardoned by Gerald Ford), etc.

Do professional athletes enjoy any kind of "advantage" in the pardon process? Our data on pardons are so thin, it is not possible to render anything close to a scientific answer. But it would seem reasonable enough to theorize (if not assume) that professional athletes enjoy - if anything - the potential "advantage" of access. It is an advantage, of course, that is shared with all persons who are public figures. Granted, fame can be a double-edged sword in this circumstance. It can bring greater scrutiny and greater criticism.

Nonetheless, it would probably be easier for Roger Clemens or filmmaker Ken Burns (who supports the pardon for Jack Johnson) to walk into the White House, or the office of anyone else in the administration, than it would be for any of the seemingly nameless, faceless thousands that have applications waiting in the Office of the Pardon Attorney. And, if the Clinton pardon scandals taught us anything at all, it is that access can be terribly important. It does not necessarily determine the outcome (there were some who had access who failed), because there are certainly other constraints (both formal and informal). But it is apparent that access can, in some circumstances, win the day.

2 comments:

John Thacker said...

I don't care what some Newsweek article was entitled, when it comes to NASCAR, there is only one King, and that's Richard Petty. There's a reason he's most of the top hits for the phrase "King of NASCAR".

P.S. Ruckman, Jr. said...

EDITOR - Trust me, I wasn't entirely convinced that I should even include race car drivers in a discussion of "athletes." :-) Best,

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