The enforcer

Sports blotter: "Real-life Rocky" edition
February 13, 2008 4:50:27 PM

NO REMATCH: In the movies, ex-jock mob leg-breakers like Rocky Balboa get a chance to turn things around. In real life, goons like Richard Todd Burger are rarely that lucky.

Yo Adrian! Pay up!

Once upon a time, the washed-up hulking athlete didn’t have very many employment opportunities. It was the rare ex-jock who could recede from the playing field straight into a Coca-Cola bottler or a string of Popeye’s franchises, the way he does today. He didn’t have autograph-signing shows and he didn’t write tell-all books about his steroid use while serving a house-arrest sentence with a GPS unit around his ankle.

No, the huge, violent retired athlete usually had only one job that was open to him at all times, and that was leg-breaker collecting debts for local bookies. Rocky was right on the money; if you were big, dumb, out of work, and scary, you walked around town in fingerless gloves, bouncing a rubber ball and occasionally tossing gamblers against alleyway walls.

Or, if you were Sonny Liston, you did all that and spiked mountains of smack in your spare time. Canadian boxing champ Eddie Melo was nearly deported for his leg-breaking work before eventually being assassinated in a gangland dispute. Either way, the job was there. It was just a matter of how long you could wait before you sucked it up and took it.

This past week, we had a modern variation on the story. Richard Todd Burger, a former offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears (’94–’97) and New York Jets (’98), was busted for being an enforcer for a New Jersey–based Internet gambling site called Somerset County authorities conducted a four-month investigation that included various stings and bets, at the end of which several players in the ring were arrested on gambling and conspiracy-to-promote-gambling charges. The operation was dubbed “Operation Net-Bet Blitz.”

According to reports, Burger, who played at Penn State, collected debts for a local hood named Anthony “Cheese” Pecoraro. Upon arrest, Burger had something like $1200 in cash at his house, though some $70,000 in total was seized from all of the suspects.

Give Burger a few added points for sentimentality, say 28 total. At least he wasn’t coking up and braining strippers like some ex-football players do.

Nervous Purvis
Thanks to reader Stephon Lee for sending an excellent article in the Atlantic about the Jena Six case, noting that it was apropos to a previous column discussing the issue of race and sports crime. The piece described how Mychael Bell, one of the “Jena Six” black high-school students arrested for the beating of a white student in Jena, Louisiana, had become a symbol of America’s race problem. Bell was a local football star who, along with five other black students, had been accused of beating white student Justin Barker. When the local parish handed down a rather extreme charge of attempted murder, the Jena Six appeared to have been railroaded by a local justice system that had overlooked several similar incidents of white students beating up blacks, as well as even more sordid incidents of whites hanging nooses to keep black students from sitting under a so-called white tree near the local high school.

But when it came about that the sports star Bell had repeatedly been coddled by local authorities despite several serious violent incidents prior to the Jena Six case — including an incident in which he rather severely beat a young woman — white supremacists and “pro-majority” forces used Bell’s bio to argue that this case was about black thuggery, not white racism. Furthermore, increased publicity revealed that Bell’s school had gone to tremendous lengths to avoid disciplining the young running back, who had led Jena to its first winning season in memory. All in all, it appeared the Jena Six case was perfectly emblematic of all the problems involved with race and sports in this country: young black men encouraged to be violent and out of control, then demonized when they finally cross a line.

In any case, the Jena Six saga had a new development this past week, as one of the Six, Bryant Purvis, was arrested again — this time for assault. Purvis had since moved from Louisiana to north Texas to live with his uncle, who happens to be Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher. The 6-6 Purvis now plays basketball for Hebron High in Carrollton, Texas, and after a recent game came outside to find his tires had been slashed. He then allegedly assaulted a student he believed was guilty of the deed. He was hit with a charge of aggravated second-degree battery and released on bond. We’ll see how quickly this becomes yet more fodder in a controversy that has already exceeded America’s lofty standards for ugliness.

They’re calling that intent
We’ve been through the whole “huge personal pot stash mistakenly assumed by police to be a start-up distribution ring” thing at least once already this year, so I won’t go over the ground rules again. Basically, busts like this are errors of scale: athletes are often big guys, and big guys sometimes have big needs.

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