In the early morning hours of Thursday, April 3rd, Dante Cunningham was arrested for (and charged with) felony domestic assault following an incident in which he allegedly choked his live-in girlfriend during an argument. Part of the terms of his bail was a “no-contact” order, forbidding telephone or internet communication between the two. Sunday morning, the woman contacted authorities, claiming Cunningham had violated the “no-contact” order; upon further investigation, the Timberwolves forward was arrested for the second time in four days, this time for “making terroristic threats.”
Before progressing any further: it’s important to note that the word “terroristic” has certain connotations that may not necessarily apply, at least, not in the manner you may think. It essentially means that a serious threat was conveyed; the language was changed and strengthened post-9/11, for obvious reasons. (This is a concise rundown of the legal details.) As of Monday evening, no charges had yet been filed following the second arrest.
Obviously, both incidents are troubling. Cunningham is accused of exhibiting pretty despicable behavior. After spending around 36 hours in custody, he was released on Friday night, having posted $40,000 bail, and caught a plane to Orlando in time for the Wolves’ tilt against the Magic on Saturday. Many in the Twin Cities media, as well as fans on social media, wondered why he was allowed to play in the midst of his ongoing legal issues. Some felt that putting Cunningham on the floor sent the wrong message, that if there was a time to send a zero-tolerance message by sitting or releasing a player, this was it.
Responding to the Cunningham dilemma with such a black-and-white resolution ignores the complexities of the situation. Obviously, domestic assault and physical threats are not morally complex issues; if Cunningham did what he’s accused of doing, he deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But we’re all innocent until proven guilty – the legal process must be allowed to run its course. It’d be imprudent to rush to judgment prior to its conclusion.
As far the team’s handling of the situation, their hands are more or less tied. The Collective Bargaining Agreement does not allow clubs to suspend players while legal issues are ongoing. Employees at will – that is, non-union employees – could be fired in this situation. NBA players are union members, and their right to continue to work through pending legal trouble was a right they negotiated for.
Theoretically, it would have been possible for the Wolves to send a message to Cunningham by benching him following the arrest, even after he was able to report to work. It’s not an official suspension, but his detainment caused him to miss an official team flight (to Miami) as well as a game; players have been benched for far less. If the team were fully healthy, they may have done just that. However, Minnesota began the Orlando game with 10 healthy players, and 1:00 into the game, that number was down to 9 (after Chase Budinger injured his ankle). Cunningham was able-bodied, present, and happens to play a position where the team is woefully thin (front court). It’s hard to fault Rick Adelman for putting him in the game.
If convicted, Cunningham faces several years of probation and stiff fines, at the least, and multiple years in prison if his actions are deemed severe enough to warrant it. The CBA does allow teams to suspend players for a minimum of 10 games if they’re tried and convicted of a violent felony; but since Dante’s deal with the Wolves is almost up, it’s likely that will be another team’s problem.
But between now and the season, a difficult question lingers: should the Timberwolves put Dante Cunningham on the floor?
It’s a terrible situation all around, especially for his alleged victim, as well as his daughters, who are staples at Target Center, as well as stars of Cunningham’s Instagram feed. We should be more jaded; social media can be manipulated to make anyone look like something they’re not. But part of the reason the Cunningham news hurt those of us who follow the Wolves was that he seemed like one of the good ones – raised in a military family, a tireless worker on the basketball court, a family man. Something, somewhere, went horribly awry.
Maybe this is all a terrible misunderstanding. Maybe Cunningham’s a violent monster. We’ll find out the truth – at least, the court’s definition of the truth – in due time. Until then, he should be allowed to play. It’s his right under the CBA, his right as a man who’s innocent until proven guilty.
We don’t have to feel comfortable with it – we probably shouldn’t. It’s probably better that way. We live in the ambiguous gray area between alleged criminal action and civil punishment – and in the meantime, a man, presumed innocent until proven guilty, will get to go to work.