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Monday, August 02, 2010

There's law . . . And there's life

I regularly criticize the portrayal of law and lawyers in popular culture. So when culture gets it right, I should acknowledge it. I give you Friday Night Lights, which had a great piece of law (and lawyers) in action last week.

For those of you who do not watch one of the best shows on television: One of the season-long plots is that a student (at East Dillon), Becky, became pregnant by Luke, one of the East Dillon football players. She went to see Tami Taylor, the Coach's wife and the principal at West Dillon at the Taylor house, seeking advice. Tami spoke to her and the request of one of Coach's former players. Tami talked to her about adoption; when Becky asked what she could do if she didn't want to have the baby, Tami said she could give her brochures. She also encouraged Becky to speak with her mother. Becky eventually went, with her mother, to terminate the pregnancy. Luke's mother finds out that Tami had given Becky advice and that Becky had an abortion; she complains (mistakenly telling people that Tami had told Becky to have an abortion) first to the School Board and then to the local paper, sparking anger and protests from many town residents. The Board tells Tami that she will be fired unless she issues a Board-drafted public statement apologizing for her handling of the situation.

Tami goes to speak with an attorney, who tells her that she has a strong wrongful termination case. (Actually, I had been thinking about whether she might have a pretty good First Amendment claim, since she spoke completely out of her role as a principal--functionally equivalent to giving advice to a family friend. That claim probably runs aground because the advice she gave to one pregnant girl probably was not on a matter of public concern as required for a successful public-employee speechclaim, unless all discussion of abortion, even a private one-on-one conversation, is so hot-button as to always be of public concern). But the lawyer goes goes on to point out other considerations that must go into her decision--the case could drag on for years (that's somewhat overstated--an individual claim does not drag on that long in a fairly discrete individual action--but not entirely untrue), she probably would not be able to get a job as a principal in the meantime, and she probably could not win (or want) reinstatement at the end of the day.

The problem, the lawyer tells her, is that "there's law . . . and there's life." This is something that is usually not portrayed in the media, where the failure to sue is an indication that a claim would have failed (i.e., "If the accusations weren't true, why aren't you suing?"). And it is something we may not always get across to our students, especially when we teach via judicial opinions in cases that, by definition, were brought. Not every potentially meritorious case will or should be brought. One's decisions to sue or not (or to settle or not) are driven by a host of considerations. It is easy to say she should stand up for her rights and her principles and see them vindicated. But, in the meantime, what does she eat and how does she pay for her daughter's college? That must weigh in the balance where she has an option--apologize--that allows her to keep her job. I did think it was interesting that the writers sent her to a private employment lawyer (who had a deer hear on his wall) rather than the ACLU--which raises a whole set of other issues about cause lawyering, etc.

Some accurate legal reality from a show about football . . . and life. Ironic, since, according to my friend who is a high school football coach, Coach Taylor is a really lousy coach.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 2, 2010 at 08:08 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Television | Permalink


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Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 4, 2010 9:00:47 PM

I would have to strongly disagree with you on this. I am very confident that there are plenty of real-world examples of high school football coaches who win championships who yell at players, don't listen to them, spout meaningless platitudes and make seemingly capricious decisions about personnel and systems.

Posted by: keith t | Aug 3, 2010 11:02:47 PM

The writers create both his coaching style/ability and his results. And any coach who coached the way he does would not achieve the results he does--just as any lawyer who behaved the way TV lawyers do would not be a very successful lawyer, regardless of the fictional results created.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 3, 2010 9:11:00 PM

MB - If we are going to discuss whether or not a fictional football coach is a good coach, I don't see why we can't consider his fictional results.

Posted by: keith t | Aug 3, 2010 6:32:13 PM

Don't forget that Coach Taylor did wonders with Matt Saracen. And I'm not sure that Riggens played better than Smash given that Smash was recruited extensively to play in college and Riggens was not.

If Coach Taylor really isn't a good coach, then maybe it's a good thing that the show is only minimally about football. I can't believe that more people don't watch this show.

Posted by: New Prof | Aug 3, 2010 2:22:02 PM

Again, I don't really follow the show closely, but these sound like very legitimate points that remind me of bad coaching I've seen.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Aug 3, 2010 10:46:50 AM

My friend's complaint is some version of my complaint about Law & Order: Television paints coaches and football in ridiculously simplistic and inaccurate ways, just as it does with law and lawyers.

For specifics: He yells at his players too much and for the wrong reasons. He doesn't listen to his players, either about football or about personal things going on in their lives. He talks in meaningless platitudes. Riggens always seemed to play better than Smash, yet he never got Riggens the ball. This year, he had two good, fast running backs--he made one of them the quarterback, then tried to turn him into a dropback passer, rather than running some version of the Option and rather than using the other running back as the focus of the offense. I could go on, but you get the point.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 3, 2010 10:04:45 AM

You do realize Taylor has the record the writers give him, right?

Posted by: Managing Board | Aug 2, 2010 10:32:00 PM

There is more than one way to coach football, and Taylor's method's have worked. What is your friend's critique?

Posted by: keith t | Aug 2, 2010 3:51:42 PM

Why is he a lousy coach? I'm not disagreeing - I only watch the show occasionally - but I'd like to know what instances suggest he's not good at his job.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Aug 2, 2010 11:57:36 AM

Prof. Wasserman,

A great post that raises a very provocative question: in what ways is Coach Taylor a really lousy coach? Do share.

Posted by: Taylor Faithful | Aug 2, 2010 10:21:18 AM

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