You can’t outrun the digital skeletons

BY GREG SKIDMORE

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Last Monday, the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team announced they had hired Wally Backman to be their new manager. Backman, a former major league player, had enjoyed a very successful run as a minor league manager, winning over 400 games and twice being named the Minor League Manager of the Year. The team lauded him as a “first class citizen” and expressed excitement over the intensity he would bring to the job. One local journalist called Backman the “ideal choice” over a month before he was selected, noting that the same fire that caused him to be ejected from several games and suspended for bumping an umpire would help to wake up the last-place team.

Fast forward to last Friday. At a press conference, the Diamondbacks announced that Backman had been fired and immediately replaced by another candidate for the job. Backman relayed that he was “stunned” by his dismissal and the Diamondbacks organization was decried as a “laughingstock” and an “embarrassment.”

What happened? How did this seemingly “ideal choice” lose his job before even signing his contract? The trouble began the day after the hiring, when the New York Times ran an article about the decision, partly because Backman was a former New York Mets player, and partly because Backman had been a candidate to manage that same team. After repeating the “intensity” rationale for the hiring, the article mentioned some legal troubles Backman had encountered in the past four years. The article mentioned a domestic dispute with his wife, a drunken driving incident; and a bankruptcy filing.

As it turned out, though, this was just the beginning. Subsequent news stories revealed that Backman’s “intensity” on the field turned far worse, as a further background check revealed a restraining order filed by his first wife, a harassment claim by his second, a charge that he hit his teenage son, and a number of tax liens on his property. Under intense public scrutiny for their decision, the team reversed course and fired Backman.

Yes, this is a story about baseball. But the message it sends goes well beyond the sports world. In short, you cannot outrun your past.

This past weekend, 3Ls received a crash course in legal ethics in their preparation for the ethics portion of the Bar exam (the MPRE). In doing so, we all learned that if you have some indiscretions in your past, it is better to admit them sooner rather than later. For some, it might be too late, as the admission should have been done as part of the application to law school. For others, the state Bar Association may allow you to explain the problem, so long as you admit it. But if you do not, and it later surfaces, there is little hope of redemption.

Backman learned the same lesson last week. If he had been honest with the Diamondbacks and revealed his run-ins with the law, the team could have set its public relations machine in motion, acknowledging the problems but downplaying their significance. The team could have spun the problems into “giving him a second chance,” an edict with which all sports fans are unfortunately familiar. Even at worst, Backman might not have been hired, but he could have kept his minor league managing job and would possibly have had a chance for another major league position down the road. With the allegations surfacing as they did, however, the team had almost no choice but to fire this otherwise excellent candidate. Moreover, the incredible publicity of the firing (at last count, over 700 newspaper articles) means that Backman may now have difficulty securing any job in baseball, at any level.

Now more than ever, honesty is the best policy when it comes to one’s past. As few as ten years ago, Backman may have been able to escape his past completely. Before the Internet and the age of digitization, a New York newspaper would have had extreme difficulty in tracking down the details of a DUI in Washington state. For someone not in the public eye, it was relatively easy to move to a new area, confident that past problems would not follow. But today, a simple Google search can delve deep into one’s past, allowing a lay person to accomplish in minutes what once took days for investigators. After reading these claims, I performed a thirty-second Lexis search and pulled up three of the incidents involving Backman. Soon, all employers can begin performing such routine searches, pulling up news stories, public records and other skeletons that applicants may wish to leave in the closet. And for those in the public eye, an army of bloggers and reporters is on constant alert for the “big” story that will launch a career or increase readership.

What does this mean for the Wally Backmans of the world? On the one hand, this is a turn for the worse, because it may prove more challenging for one to overcome an unfortunate past. It would be unfortunate if this wealth of information prevented anyone from getting a second chance. But the decision ultimately should belong to employers, and in many cases, a few minor, isolated legal problems in the past will not preclude current employment, so long as the applicant shows both honesty and remorse. Applicants to law school and to the Bar should keep this in mind, as each lie only compounds the problem and increases the consequences if caught.

In an argument familiar to many, Backman did not think the incidents were relevant to his employment. After all, he was good at what he did and the legal troubles in no way had prevented him from getting a previous job within the same organization. But as he now knows, and we should all understand, even small legal problems can become relevant if covered up. And in this day and age, no matter how fast you run, information moves faster.

Greg Skidmore is a 3L who hopes that no one finds out about the Great Cookie Jar Heist of ’84. You can read more about the relevance of sports to the law at http://sports-law.blogspot.com.

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