The NFL had declined comment regarding whether the latest development in the memorabilia fraud case against Manning and the Giants pulls the situation within the Personal Conduct Policy or has sparked an investigation under the policy. A Thursday ruling from the presiding judge determined that Manning will be the only defendant who faces a claim of common-law fraud before a jury.
The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy specifically prohibits “[c]rimes of dishonesty such as blackmail, extortion, fraud, money laundering, or racketeering.” (Emphasis added.) More generally, the policy forbids “[c]onduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel.”
Eli Manning is one of the most liked and respected players in the NFL. I like and respect him. But if a jury finds that he perpetrated a fraud regarding game-used helmets that weren’t actually game-used, those two portions of the Personal Conduct Policy can’t be ignored.
The league may, if Eli eventually is found to have committed fraud under New Jersey civil laws, contend that there’s a difference between civil and criminal fraud. However, fraud is fraud.
Under New Jersey civil law, fraud happens when someone lies about an important factual matter (“this helmet I’m selling was game used”), when the person knows or believes he’s lying (“this helmet I’m selling was never actually game used”), when the person wants someone else to rely on the lie (“I hope they accept this helmet as game used even though it isn’t”), when someone else relies on it (“I’ve pulled it off“), and when the person who relies on it experiences a loss of money or other tangible harm. Under federal law, fraud becomes a crime when the means to perpetrate it are the mail (mail fraud) or electronic communications (wire fraud).
In this case, the question of whether a New Jersey civil fraud becomes federal criminal wire fraud may hinge on that one specific email sent by Eli Manning requesting “2 helmets that can pass as game used.” Technical defenses could include an argument that the email message never actually crossed state lines. Even if the sender and recipient are located in the same state, it’s hard to imagine every email ever sent not crossing state lines as it moves from sender to server to another server to recipient.
And even if Eli Manning is never charged with wire fraud, Ezekiel Elliott was never charged with a crime, either. Which underscores one of the major problems that the NFL created for itself when establishing an in-house operation that investigates, prosecutes, and convicts under a vague, shadowy, confusing process that seems to be guided more by P.R. than by notions of fairness and justice.
While the NFL’s “no comment” doesn’t mean the NFL isn’t investigating the situation, the NFL typically isn’t bashful about acknowledging when a Personal Conduct Policy investigation has been launched. In this case, “no comment” could instead mean something like, “Oh crap we’ve created a monster that could force us into taking action against someone we don’t really want to take action against.”