Humoring jock aristocrats is a dangerous game

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 29, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

That night at the Belvedere Hotel there were a dozen of us having dinner, including the famous American author and the famous American League outfielder, but not including the various ladies with their cotton candy hair who kept approaching the table with pens and paper in their trembly hands.

The famous American author was Mickey Spillane, who sat there with the actress who played his dumb blond girlfriend in the old Miller Lite commercials. The famous American League outfielder shall go unnamed, owing to the sensibilities of his absent wife and all the trembly ladies with their cotton candy hair.

''Could I have your autograph?'' the ladies would ask the famous outfielder.

''I'm staying here at the hotel,'' the retired (but never retiring) outfielder would respond, holding up his room key.

The trembly ladies settled for autographs and then beat hasty retreats.

The outfielder would order another round of drinks, and then the sound of forced laughter would spill from those of us covering our embarrassment.

Mickey Spillane and the actress who played the dumb blond pretended they saw none of this. The dumb blond wasn't so dumb after all. She could make the distinction between the parody she played in the beer commercials and the reality of what we used to call civilized behavior.

Is Mike Tyson paying any attention? The former heavyweight boxing champ turned jailbird is a spiritual descendant of the American League outfielder, a man-child at play in an arena created by adoring fans who generally look the other way when things get ugly.

Tyson's doing time in an Indiana prison not merely because he jumped a pretty young lady. This guy had trouble written all over him for years. He pawed at any available women and skirted the edges of legal prosecution.

The parasites closest to him laughed to cover their embarrassment and their investments in him. It's the free pass we give to our jocks: perform well, and we'll overlook almost anything.

In court, Mike Tyson clearly understood none of this. Facing sentencing last week, looking for a last-second knockout, he told an Indianapolis judge, ''I didn't hurt anybody: no black eyes, no broken ribs.''

Is that the line on consent, that no visible scars were left? At the Belvedere Hotel, the famous outfielder wore a thin veil of civility. When he cracked crude jokes, everybody laughed. Partly, it was embarrassment for his manners, and partly it was the thrill of being included in his storytelling.

Our athletes are our royalty, so what's a little crudeness if we're suddenly invited into the king's court?

The problem is this: Each time we chuckle indulgently at the spoiled athletes, they get a little more emboldened, a little more assured that they play by a different set of rules than everybody else.

In the next several days, sad new evidence arrives in book stores: ''Lenny, Lefty, and the Chancellor,'' written by The Sun's C. Fraser Smith, an attempt at long last to come to grips with the tragedy of Len Bias and to hold up a little light in the search for a way out of the athletic darkness.

The book is meticulously reported and written in language which, nearly six years after the fact, still makes your heart ache. Those kids in College Park were merely a variation on a theme, the sneakered set's version of the old outfielder or the young Mike Tyson.

''You have guys who come through here who can't even sit down and hold a conversation,'' the former Maryland basketball star Herman Veal told Smith.

''They all go places together. They hang with each other. They're not able to mingle socially.''

Veal was talking in the murky aftermath of Bias' drug overdose, and Veal's own flirtation with sex abuse charges involving a college coed.

''The university just wanted me to stay out of trouble,'' said Veal.

''They don't care about you as a person. The system doesn't care. The system's just holding its breath.''

For years, those around Mike Tyson held their breath. For years, those around the University of Maryland basketball program did the same. Were the players going to class? Of course not. Were they passing their courses? Not a chance.

But who cared, as long as they were winning? Who cared about hints of drug abuse while watching Len Bias defy not only the drug laws but the law of gravity?

It's the little deal America makes with its jock aristocracy: entertain us well enough, and we'll tolerate you. What the athletes don't quite understand is that, eventually, there are limits -- only nobody's ever explained what those limits are.

Mike Tyson can't figure out what he's done wrong, because nobody ever told him. It was too easy for those around him simply to keep cashing his checks and getting their cut. Likewise, whatever directions were given to Len Bias and his teammates were clearly dispatched with a wink.

Year after year, semester after semester, it became clear that academics were an afterthought. As for narcotics, well, all that stuff about drugs killing people didn't affect them, not when the world was proclaiming their bodies indestructible.

The athletes live in a different world than the rest of us because we put them there. Len Bias thought he was special, right up to the instant he died. Mike Tyson still thinks some mistake has been made.

And that American League outfielder is no different. Mickey Spillane sat there that night, with millions of books sold in his name, and nobody noticed him. But the outfielder was approached by at least a score of women.

To their credit, they all backed away from his crude overtures. But the athletes are different from the rest of us. Seeing him face a night alone, somebody at the table made a telephone call, and a professional lady soon appeared, hired to keep the former outfielder company.

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