Thursday, May 04, 2006

The privileged class

We all know athletes get preferential treatment, but did you know that extends to the criminals among them? While the average citizen is required to pick up trash on the side of the road, they're signing autographs as part of their community service.

USA TODAY examined the cases of 40 pro athletes sentenced to community service from 2001 through early 2006, gleaned from multiple databases. Their crimes: assaulting fans, cops, wives and girlfriends; sex with minors; drunken driving; hit-and-run; possession of illegal drugs; carrying concealed weapons; firing pistols in public; and vehicular homicide.

In 24 of the 28 cases in which the community service assignment could be determined, it involved activities such as throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game, posing for pictures or attending or coaching at youth sports camps.

Four of the 28 athletes served punishments that involved the kind of menial labor typically required of non-celebrity defendants. In most of the 12 cases in which the community service could not be determined, courts or probation agencies had sealed or destroyed the records; in two such cases, the punishment had not been decided because the courts had not set it or the athletes had not chosen how to fulfill the requirement.

Take the example of NASCAR prima donna Kurt Busch, who was pulled over last November on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Busch became belligerent, calling the deputies "punks" who "should be directing traffic somewhere," according to the sheriff's report. Busch, who had just signed a major sponsorship deal with Miller Lite, refused to complete what he called their "gay-ass" field sobriety test. Busch passed breath tests that night and later apologized to the deputies. In February he made a plea deal on misdemeanor and civil charges.

Busch was sentenced to 50 hours of community service, fined $580 and given seven points on his license after he admitted to speeding, following too closely and passing in a no-passing zone. (At eight points, the state can suspend a driver's license or require attendance at driving school.)

For his community service, Busch, as part of a charity fundraising effort, signed autographs and threw out the first pitch for a game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants in April, according to his attorney, Lee Stein. Busch also donated $10,000 worth of baseball equipment to the Westside Recreation League in Avondale, Ariz. And he will pay all production and media costs to air a public service TV commercial with himself and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, warning about the perils of reckless driving.

And check out the "punishment" doled out to NBA player DeShawn Stevenson, who was convicted of statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl in 2001. A non-celebrity would likely serve jail time, appropriately. Not Stevenson.

It reads like the diary of a pro athlete: picked up by car service in Manhattan, N.Y., at 1 p.m.; whisked to dinner at a basketball camp in Teaneck, N.J.; posed for pictures and signed autographs; delivered motivational speech; back in New York City by 11.

But this isn't a typical celebrity schedule. It's the probation record for NBA player DeShawn Stevenson ...

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