Only a legal spin can top Tonya case

February 04, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

OK, sports fans (and "Hard Copy" fans), here are the three possible resolutions of this Tonya Harding business:

* She is not charged with a crime and gets to skate in the Olympics.

* She cracks under the pressure and drops out.

* A huge legal mess.

Me, I'm betting on Door No. 3. When in doubt, clog up the courts, right?

Coming soon to your living room: The Olympics on Court TV. ("I'm going for the gold as soon as I file this brief!")

See, the U.S. Olympic Committee and/or the U.S. Figure Skating Association probably are going to try to boot Harding off the team for violating a code of conduct. Yet she's not going to be convicted of a crime before it's time to skate, which means, according to the law, she is still innocent.

It's a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The least likely resolution is that she takes the fall and drops out before the opening ceremonies. That would amount to admitting guilt, and she's too stubborn to do that. Besides, the stakes are too high. Remember Butch Reynolds?

He was the 400-meter champion from Ohio who was banned from competing in any meet by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, track's governing body. The IAAF said Reynolds failed a drug test at a meet in Monte Carlo in 1990. Reynolds sued the IAAF, saying the test was flawed.

Two years later, Judge Joseph Kinneary of the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio awarded Reynolds a $27.3 million judgment, writing in his opinion that the IAAF's claim of Reynolds' drug use was "not only false . . . but disseminated with malice."

Innocent until proven guilty.

The IAAF has refused to recognize the award, claiming it is not under the jurisdiction of the American courts. But they've got a costly fight on their hands.

The USOC and USFSA could wind up in the same vulnerable situation if they kick Harding off the team. Reynolds won in court because he had been denied due process of law. Harding could VTC make the same claim if she is booted.

To repeat: $27.3 million.

It's no wonder the USOC and USFSA are hesitant to make a move.

Even if they do try to boot her -- look for the USFSA to try to revoke her membership, making her ineligible for the Olympics -- she has rights with which to fight the ban. Under the rules of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, she can ask for an arbitrator's ruling within 48 hours. She also can ask a district court to deny the ban with a temporary restraining order.

Anything could happen at that point. The only certainty is that a battery of administrators, arbitrators, attorneys and judges would take over the issue of whether Harding could skate. What fun!

LeRoy Walker, the head of the USOC, said recently that the organization should not avoid taking on Harding just because it is afraid of a lengthy, expensive lawsuit. But how can it not be gun-shy when, as Reynolds proved, the stakes are so high?

It won't be difficult to prove Harding violated the USFSA code of conduct, which asks that athletes "exemplify the highest standard of fairness, ethical behavior and genuine good sportsmanship." Harding blew that one when she admitted she didn't go to the police as soon as she learned of the conspiracy. That's not a crime in Oregon, but it's hardly ethical.

Anyway, it's another thing altogether to prove that violating the code is grounds for preventing her from competing in the Olympics. There is a mound of hypocrisy just below the surface of that claim.

Hanging your defense on some vague Olympic ideal is a shaky move indeed in an age when professionalism has invaded the Games and rising profits have been fanned happily by, among others, the USOC.

A shot putter named Jim Doehring was allowed to compete in Barcelona despite having pleaded guilty the previous December conspiring to possess and distribute amphetamines, a federal offense.

A year before Michael Jordan went for the gold as a member of the Dream Team, a $57,000 check from his account was seized by federal agents investigating a convicted drug dealer named Slim Bouler.

L Were those athletes upholding some Olympian code of conduct?

OK.

Of course, that doesn't mean the USOC and USFSA won't go after Harding. That they want her off the team is obvious. You can't blame them. Her presence would push the other athletes off the front page. The luge can't compete with TonyaGate.

The hunch here is they'll at least make an attempt to ban her, making known their disapproval. The courts will take it from there. It'll turn into a classic tale of America in the '90s. The lawyers win.

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