Court has no place in ring with Mercer, nor on any other sports playing surface

JOHN EISENBERG

July 04, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

Frustrated, angry, a boxer ducks a jab and growls at his opponent the original piece of trash talk: "I'm gonna kill you."

Is he guilty of attempted murder?

No, it's not the plot of John Grisham's next legal thriller. It's a question that begs to be asked in the wake of heavyweight Ray Mercer's indictment in New York last week for allegedly offering bribes to Jesse Ferguson during their fight at Madison Square Garden in February.

Yes, for those who sped-read past that little nugget there: the bribes allegedly were made during the fight.

Of course, bribes are almost as basic to boxing as gloves and satin trunks, but these were the first, at least the first on record, to be offered in front of thousands of ticket-buying witnesses, in between feints and punches.

It was a stunning, splashy indictment that got the New York district attorney plenty of publicity, but there is a larger question that resonates through the entire sporting spectrum: What about the sanctity of the playing field?

Is it no longer true that games are games and real life is real life? Apparently not.

Should ill-tempered hockey players be arrested for assault? Should mighty Casey's teammates have sued him for breach of contract when he struck out with the game on the line? Is our society now so lawsuit-happy that we can arrest an athlete for what he says during a game? Apparently so.

Mercer, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist, was penciled in for a $2.5 million title bout with Riddick Bowe if he beat Ferguson, but he came in overweight and started getting smacked around early. He had previously blown another title shot with Evander Holyfield in similar circumstances -- losing to Larry Holmes, for crying out loud -- and surely felt in dire straits.

As he saw his chances slipping away, according to the DA, he offered Ferguson $100,000 to throw the fight during a clinch in the third round. The offer was repeated "numerous times" before the end of the bout, said the DA, who used computer-enhanced videotapes to make the charge.

"I promise," the DA quoted Mercer as saying over and over. "I promise I'll give you the money."

Ferguson, who earned a $10,000 paycheck that night, obviously didn't believe in promises. He won the bout in a unanimous decision and wound up in the title bout with Bowe, for which he was paid $250,000.

Mercer could get up to seven years in prison if convicted. But he should beat the rap. If he plays it smart -- smarter than he did during the bout -- he shouldn't have any trouble in court.

Because the alleged bribes occurred during the fight and not before, there is a fatal flaw in the DA's case. It's all about the sanctity of the playing field. About separating games and real life.

Think about it: How can the DA prove that Mercer's offers were in fact bribes and not some psychological play designed to break Ferguson's concentration?

He can't.

All Mercer has to say is this: "I was losing. I was desperate. I wasn't bribing him for real. I was trying to mess with his head. Prove otherwise."

It's the perfect alibi: Just part of the game. Life is life and games are games. What happens during a contest is not meant to be taken literally.

If you commit a sporting crime, you get ejected or benched or sent to the penalty box, not handcuffed or charged or sent to jail. The penal code does not apply.

If it did, a half-dozen hockey players would get arrested for assault in every game. Baseball teams could get restraining orders forcing opposing pitchers not to throw at their heads.

There has to be a line of demarcation when games begin. As long as we're going to play games to win, we have to give the athletes the freedom -- within the rules -- to do what they think they must do to win.

It's their first right. They can do what they want. Say what they want. Use whatever ploys or tactics they think might enable them to win.

Such as talking trash. Or making the other guy laugh. Or trying to blow his mind by, say, offering him a bribe.

Boxing being the ethical wasteland that it is, Mercer probably is guilty. But it can't be proved. And he shouldn't be convicted. There's a larger point. Athletes should be free to play their games, using whatever style they choose, and that's a right that no judge or DA should be able to dictate.

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