October 2014 - Hammerlocks, Full Nelsons, and Contractual Obligations: Difficult to Escape From

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

My grandmother taught me to open doors for ladies, walk on the outside of the sidewalk, distinguish between the salad fork and the entrée fork, and a bunch of other stuff nobody cares about anymore. She showed me where to put my hands when I slow-danced with a girl, and taught me the lady sitting to the right of the host was always served first.

She also taught me to play blackjack and stud poker,1 and she knew more about wrestling and roller derby than any two men I’ve met since. I’m not sure whether she was reunited with her husband in heaven, but if Nicky Bockwinkel and Ralphy Valladares—her favorite wrestler and roller-skater—were there, I’m sure Grandma looked them up.

It was an article of faith in my boyhood that wrestling and roller derby were legit. I don’t know if Grandma actually believed that, but I remember fiercely defending both sports to my little friends, so I know she had inculcated that point of view in me.

My earliest pantheon of heroes included the usual number of baseball and football players, but a place of honor was reserved for Sandor Szabo, a Hungarian émigré who had figured out that his electric smile and diffident manner—and a willingness to fall down a lot—could put food on his table as a professional wrestler.

And my villains came from the same source. If I’d owned a gun, I would have happily shot Freddie Blassie.2 Several times.

Grandma would have smuggled me out of town in the trunk of her car.

These are doubtless surprising sentiments to those of you who have not been exposed to professional wrestling. It’s probably difficult to imagine how reasonably sentient human beings could get so worked up over an hour’s entertainment.

But I have a theory that lawyers all share one character trait. While they may differ wildly in other aspects of their personality, all lawyers have a heightened sense of fairness.

We all gravitated to this profession because of an overdeveloped conviction that people should get a fair shake. To one degree or another, we lawyers are all hypersensitive to tilts or misalignments of the playing fields of our lives. It will surprise no one who had the misfortune to appear before me as a trial judge that I was—even as a Little Leaguer—hypervigilant about rule enforcement.

So imagine Mid-Century Me, tiny little Future Justice—age nine or so—watching a televised “sporting event” where the felonious Freddie Blassie had pulled a piece of metal out of his trunks and was using it to turn Sandor Szabo’s face into ground round while the referee inexplicably failed to look. Or where Count Billy Vargas was clearly choking Edouard Carpentier3 while the referee was busy admonishing Vargas’ corner man for having clobbered Carpentier with a chair!

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got it backwards. Maybe it was wrestling and roller derby that developed that antagonism to unfairness in me. Maybe watching the Bay City Bombers cheat my beloved Los Angeles Thunderbirds was a seminal event in my progress toward the Bar.

But whichever the chicken and whichever the egg, I remain over-attuned to unfairness. You show me cruelty, I feel bad. You show me greed, I get angry. You show me unfairness, I’m ready to write the opinion.4 Grandma would understand.

But what I don’t know now and will never know is whether she believed wrestling and roller derby were on the up-and-up, or whether she just thought it cruel to burst a little boy’s bubble. I wonder how Grandma would have reacted to the article I read in Smithsonian magazine.

According to Smithsonian,5 “New analysis of an ancient document reveals classical roots of fake wrestling.” That whirring sound you hear is my grandmother spinning in her grave.

But the Smithsonian has a pretty good case. The “ancient document” that shows the fix was in is ... wait for it ... I never got cases this good when I was a prosecutor ... the actual contract by which one of the wrestlers agrees to take a dive.

Honest. The Romans of AD 267 did not just shake hands and pass over a bag full of coins. They drew up a freaking contract to throw the match!

“The papyrus, found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt ... is apparently the first known bribery contract in ancient sports.” Well, I would hope so. How many match promoters could there have been who were stupid enough to write out the terms of the fix? Even Freddie Blassie would have known better than that.

The contract provides that wrestler Demetrious will “fall three times and yield” for which he will receive 3800 drachmas from Aurelius Aquila, the father of Demetrious’ opponent Nicantinous. It further provides that “if Demetrious doesn’t play his part, there will be a penalty of 18,000 drachmas.”

I know very little about Roman law.6




But it’s hard for me to understand how this contract was to be enforced. If Demetrious failed to take the fall, how was Aurelius Aquila supposed to collect his 18K? Could he really show up before the local magistrate waving his contract and insisting that Demetrious cheated his son out of his title by failing to cheat him into it?

Certainly that couldn’t be done today. Under 18 U. S. C. § 224, even attempting to influence the outcome of a sporting event is punishable by fine or imprisonment. So in modern America, if Aurelius Aquina so much as hands the contract to Demetrious, federal agents pop out from behind every pillar and haul him off to the carcer.7

And if he somehow escapes that fate and later tries to file a lawsuit based on the contract,8 the assistant United States attorneys fight over the ensuing prosecution like sharks who’ve been thrown a rabbit.9

But it must have been different 1900 years ago on the banks of the Nile. There must have been some kind of legal recourse available to these people because the contract clearly provides that if Demetrious plays his part and for some reason the title isn’t awarded,10 he still gets his drachmas and he cannot be sued! So whoever was representing Demetrious wanted to make sure his guy was protected as long as he bit the canvas in the prescribed manner.

And I note that the contract is between Demetrious and Nicantonious’ father. It may well have been that under Roman law Nicantonious was old enough to defraud, but not old enough to contract. That’s a legal distinction Cicero would have been proud of.

But here’s the part I like most. In exchange for tanking in this “final bout” in the “sacred games,” Demetrious was going to get 3800 drachmas. According to the scholar who translated the document, that would have been just enough in 267 AD to buy a donkey.

So even then, athletes were all about the ride.


  1. She thought draw poker was a game for sissies.
  2. Google him. Just looking at him again reminds me how much that pencil-necked geek needed killing.
  3. How is it I have difficulty remembering Supreme Court citations, but I can call up the names of long-dead wrestlers like they were my children?
  4. William O. Douglas was my first legal hero. I could not today endorse his equity-above-all approach, but its appeal to me says a lot about how I feel about unfairness.
  5. And let’s face it, if you’ve got the Smithsonian Institution on your side, you pretty much don’t care who’s on the other side. See Elizabeth Quill, Wrestling Was Fixed, Even in Ancient Rome, Smithsonian Mag. (July 2014), http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/Wrestling-Was-Fixed-Even-in-Ancient-Rome-180951795/?utm_source=facebook.com&no-ist.
  6. I’ve asked the editor to leave a blank space here so you can insert your own joke about how little I know about California law. Go ahead, knock yourself out.
  7. Hence the term “incarcerate.” I took four years of Latin in high school. Fifty years later I have to doff my cap to Father Aloysius and admit it finally came in handy.
  8. “I knew that little sneak Demetrious couldn’t be trusted to act honorably!”
  9. I must admit, I have never actually seen this, but criminal defense attorneys who practice in the federal courts have described it to me.
  10. Like if the match organizers figure out it was rigged??!!

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.