Huddle to cell is sad but familiar progression

February 06, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Athletes are acclaimed, adulated, adored. Beyond all reasonable belief. Such glorification puts them on pedestals where few men ever stand. Ray Lewis, the best player on the Ravens' roster, was scheduled to appear in the Pro Bowl today in Hawaii -- with palm trees swaying in the background and the blue Pacific lapping the sugar-white beaches. All so idyllic.

Being selected for the bowl is a way for the NFL to reward its outstanding players for the exceptional performances they produced during the season.

But Lewis, instead of being involved in the glittering proceedings, was incarcerated at what is known as the Atlanta City Detention Center while his No. 1 fan, his mother, was waiting for her son to arrive in Hawaii. If he's convicted of the double-murder charges, then it means he has lost his career in pro football, where his competency could never be disputed.

It's a deeply troublesome human development in what has been a chaotic past of growing up poor in Lakeland, Fla., using athletic ability to elevate himself to a better way of life and becoming a millionaire for his talent in stopping men running with a football. Now that could all be in the past tense, destroyed in one swoop of a judge's gavel, if he's found guilty after due process. Yes, but also a takedown, a humiliation to all of professional sports, an indictment of the games America enjoys with profound passion and its insatiable desire to watch ad infinitum. Call it blind hero worship.

The cheerleading public wants to believe the Lewis case is a momentous mistake. The facts, of course, haven't been legally introduced and, as yet, in no way proved.

Quickly, and often in contradiction of available evidence, a carried-away fandom refuses to accept the reports as presented and even accuses the police of making a grandstand play by wanting to lock up a prominent personality.

Little wonder the NFL put an end to the slash-across-the-throat motion some of its players were making during their self-centered demonstrations on the field.

In future training camp indoctrinations, will it be necessary for coaches to lecture a team on the grave seriousness of being involved in murder instead of warning against chop-blocking or twisting the face mask of an opposing halfback?

Will they have to be so elementary in describing the basics of leading a decent life that they, meaning the players, all young adults, need to be told how to interpret right from wrong?

Not that there's any correlation between playing football and killing citizens in cold blood. To even talk or write about it happening becomes repulsive. Murder is something the commissioner's office can't control any more than it can monitor where players go, what they do and the company they keep. How can the NFL legislate behavior except during games on Sunday afternoons in the fall?

Times have definitely changed in the NFL. Vince Lombardi, assertive and demanding, in the last meeting of the league he attended before he died, gave the assembled club owners and executives a message: Don't allow the players to run the league. Don't weaken your position of authority. Make them at all times adhere to strict rules.

He wasn't wrong. Lombardi was around when the most grievous action seemed to be that some players got drunk on Sunday nights as an after-game ritual and their hangovers carried into Monday. There weren't any angels in helmets, then or now, certainly none qualifying for canonization.

Yet players of the current era continue to find unprecedented ways to get into serious predicaments, the kind that project their pictures on Page 1 and cause embarrassment to themselves, families and employers. Not minor scrapes, but the more heinous kind that may lead to a lifetime sentence in the "big house."

Professional athletes not only are toasted as celebrities, but too often are spoiled and come to believe the rules of society don't pertain to them. In some instances, they have been catered to since sandlot days, through high school, college and, now, the professionals.

It happens frequently that when an athlete has created a problem for himself, he doesn't pay a penalty. Instead, a coach intercedes and seeks a probation before judgment, or something as light as contributing free time to some type of community project.

They are able to beat the rap, whereas other citizens in similar circumstances would never expect to be beneficiaries of such soft-glove treatment. Their proficiency at sports should never afford insulation from going to jail.

"Pulling time" is no picnic, as too many of them have already experienced. Normal liberties that go with everyday life on the outside are taken away. Visitors frequently have to talk through a screen to the convicts. Then the sound of a cell door clanging behind them makes for torment, a constant reminder that they are confined and aren't going anywhere.

So many players, especially in the NFL, are being arrested that it causes you to wonder with a helpless touch of being facetious if sometime the Super Bowl won't have to be played in the state penitentiary. Two bold numbers on a jersey are replaced by different sorts of criminal numbers, under a full face and profile mug shots, for future reference that can't be found in any football program.

All is quiet. Lights are out. There's silence inside the walls. The cheering has stopped. A hero is awaiting trial and, hopefully, an equitable decision.

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