Harding deserves a chance for now

January 23, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

"Everyone makes mistakes," Tonya Harding told reporters last week.

No one will argue.

But just what kinds of mistakes has Harding made?

That is now the central question of the Kerrigan Kaper, which has turned to the issue of whether Harding should be allowed to skate in the Olympics.

What kinds of mistakes did she make? Was she wrong only in her selection of company? Did she simply marry the wrong person? Hire the wrong bodyguard? Have they turned an innocent kid into a victim with their alleged thuggery?

Or is that hopelessly naive, and Harding's mistakes more serious? Did she get too caught up in her pursuit of a gold medal and participate in the plan to bust Kerrigan's knee? Did she, at the very least, know about what was going down?

According to several polls, the majority of the country believes she is, ah, less than innocent. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence suggesting such a conclusion. Suggesting but not confirming, that is.

There are the arrests of her former husband and bodyguard. The accusations of the bodyguard, who says she knew. The mysterious phone calls to Kerrigan's practice rink in Massachusetts. The vague money trail. The convening of a grand jury to study her involvement.

No, it doesn't look good.

But then there is this little fact to toss into the equation:

She hasn't been arrested.

According to the law, right now she is as innocent as Kerrigan.

A niggling little detail.

It doesn't mean she won't get nailed next week, of course. As a matter of fact, she very well might. That grand jury wasn't convened to waste taxpayers' money.

Still, as of now, she's just another law-abiding American citizen (who has been interviewed for 10 1/2 hours by the FBI, fingered as a conspirator by her former bodyguard and studied by grand jurors. And not arrested.)

Millions of amateur Columbos believe she is guilty. But the pros haven't charged her.

Unless that changes, unless she gets hauled off to the lock-up one of these days, she deserves the opportunity to skate in Lillehammer.

Yes, maybe that sends out a bad message. So, your friends can advance your career by taking out your opposition. Beautiful, huh?

But is it right to punish someone for a crime he didn't commit? What kind of message does that send? If the police don't arrest Harding, if she is innocent in the eyes of the law -- the only eyes that count -- what is her crime? What has she done to get kicked off the team?

Nothing.

Sure, the evidence is there. But it's a big leap from suspicion to guilt. Let's see Harding make the leap before we "kneecap" her career. Remember, there also are allegations that her husband abused her during their marriage. What if he cowed her into cooperating with a plan to injure Kerrigan? Does that make her culpable?

Sure, her former bodyguard has accused her of knowing about the plot. But that's a self-serving accusation. Prosecutors will look more favorably upon him if he reels in the big fish. He is hardly trustworthy.

Sure, she has little hope of winning a gold medal now in a sport judged subjectively. But what does that have to do with her right to compete?

The bigwigs in the American skating and Olympic communities want her off the team right now. They think it would look bad to showcase a national champion fresh off a grand jury investigation. You can hardly blame them.

But Bruce Kimball participated in the 1988 trials while up on drunken-driving charges that resulted in two deaths. Jim Doehring won a silver medal in 1992 after pleading guilty to a drug charge. To penalize Harding, particularly if she isn't charged, would be to indulge in a terrible double-standard.

The bigwigs also say that Harding's presence would detract from the performances of the other Olympians. But so did the Dream Team, and, if I'm not mistaken, the Olympic community openly welcomed them. In other words, Harding isn't their idea of a distraction.

(Except that CBS clearly would benefit from her presence. The viewing audience for a Harding-Kerrigan duel would rival that of the Super Bowl. Keep it in mind. The networks tend to get their way.)

What the bigwigs really want is for Harding to make their lives easy and just take herself off the team. Forget it. "If I can be there, I'll be there," she said.

If she does get arrested, the issue becomes a slam-dunk. She can't go.

But if she isn't arrested, she should get to skate. It's a free country.

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