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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

NFL Players, Their Crimes, The Media and The Law

    The number of people killed by intoxicated drivers has been on the decline for a decade. Since the FBI doesn't keep track of this kind of killing specifically, no one knows how many drunk drivers are convicted of homicide. 

     Under state law an intoxicated driver who causes a fatal traffic accident is guilty of an unintentional criminal homicide called, depending on the jurisdiction, involuntary manslaughter, vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter. Defendants convicted of this lesser degree of homicide usually receive sentences that range from five to fifteen years in prison. The severity of punishment in these cases depends upon the driver's DUI history, the degree of intoxication and the recklessness of the driving. Over the years, however, judges have become increasingly less lenient in vehicular homicide convictions.

     Every year police in the United States make about 1.5 million DUI arrests, and unless they pull over someone famous, these events are not newsworthy. The same is true for the vast majority of vehicular homicide cases which do not receive much media notice. However, when a drunk driving fatality involves several children, an entire family or a car full of teenagers, the media pays more attention. But these cases are still treated as local or regional news stories.

     In the early morning hours of December 8, 2012, near the southern California town of Victorville, a man named Ilich Ernesto Vargas, while driving the wrong way on I-15, crashed head-on into another vehicle. The 28-year-old driver of the other car, David Ahmed of Fort Irwin, received minor injuries. But the accident took the life of Vargas' passenger, 50-year-old Kellie Sue Hughes. The California Highway Patrol officer who took the drug-crazed Vargas into custody at the scene had to employ his taser. Vargas had broken a leg in the crash.

     This fatal traffic accident on I-15 generated two paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times and a mention the next day on local television news. There was no follow-up by the Los Angeles media.

     On the morning Ilich Vargas crashed his car and killed his passenger in southern California, Josh Brent flipped his Mercedes and killed his passenger in Dallas, Texas. While the police in both fatal traffic accidents suspected that the drivers were intoxicated, and therefore potential vehicular homicide defendants, the crash in Dallas attracted the attention of the national media. The Dallas case was big news because the driver, Josh Brent, played football for the Dallas Cowboys. The fact that his 25-year-old passenger, Jerry Brown, was a teammate, made the story even more media significant, particularly in the wake of the recent murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher, an NFL player for the Kansas City Chiefs.

     As a potential vehicular homicide case there was nothing in the Josh Brent accident that set it apart from all the other fatalities beyond the identities of the driver and his dead passenger. From the standpoint of the victims' families in these cases all of these accidents were tragic. And to varying degrees, these fatalities ruined the lives of the intoxicated drivers. But this wasn't enough by itself to make these cases newsworthy. In the Josh Brent case the added ingredient was sports. It was mainly a sports story.

     It should come as no surprise that in a country where a single NFL football game generates three times more media attention than the typical crime, weather, political, war or business related story, that Josh Brent's status as a professional football player made his case so important. Print journalists and cable TV correspondents, as well as sports broadcasters and pundits babbled on and on about the effect of the tragedy on the other players, and of course the team. 

     Correspondents and reporters in the news and sports media used the Josh Brent case and the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide as a jumping off point for discussions on the possible effects of head trauma in the NFL. Had the sport of football become too violent?  Was football responsible for player depression, off-the-field domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and murder? 

     In American culture professional athletes are special people and as such are treated differently than ordinary citizens. Their problems are our problems, indeed, our responsibility. Prior to the intense media coverage of their tragedies most people never heard of Josh Brent, Jerry Brown or Jovan Belcher. Had these men not been professional football players most people still wouldn't know their names.

     While we are in theory all equal under the law, we are not equal under the glare of the media. This may not have been a good thing for Josh Brent. The magistrate set his bail at $500,000.

     In January 2014 a jury found Josh Brent guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to 180 days in jail and ten years of probation. The fact he played professional football probably explains the light sentence.

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