Pros at top of game with response to Katrina

September 22, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

The reminders are all around us. Pro athletes, especially the ones from the NFL and the NBA, are digging elbow-deep into their pockets and wading knee-deep in floodwaters to take a very tangible and visible lead in the recovery of the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina.

They're acting the way we all demand that they act, and the opposite of how we've come to believe they act. It's left us deeply confused. Or cynical. Or thoroughly unconvinced.

Maybe even in denial.

The examples are almost too numerous to list. But the one here in town is as good as any to start with. Inside the Castle in Owings Mills, one of those big, ceremonial checks is floating around, written out to hurricane relief for $1,223,200.

The check might have been about one-twentieth of that amount, enough to cover the original planned donation by the team and a matching collection from fans at the final home preseason game. Except that the Ravens players met before any plans were completed and collected $165,000 among themselves.

That was matched by the team, then the owner, then the former owner, then the former owner's son, then the fans at the game. "It never would have happened if the players hadn't started it," one team official pointed out.

And that started when Deion Sanders, who grew up several hundred miles from the ravaged areas, spoke for Louisiana natives and teammates Ed Reed and Alan Ricard and challenged his fellow NFL players to chip in $1,000 each for relief.

The thanks they got from the public? A letter in this paper two weekends ago, criticizing Sanders and the other NFL players for giving so little, in spite of their huge contracts. And more than a few observations, some of which have gotten into print and onto various airwaves, that it was all a typical case of grandstanding and attention-grabbing. It's what greedy, me-first, irresponsible pro athletes do, you know.

Sanders wasn't surprised. "I don't know if it's received as much media attention as a bad thing would," he said after practice yesterday.

These players aren't holding their breath waiting for an acknowledgement that there is more to them than that perception.

The average disaffected, disconnected fan cannot pair the sight of Joe Horn walking through shelters packed with evacuees, supplying the face of a Saints team connecting with its despairing community, with the sight of Joe Horn pulling out a cell phone to celebrate a touchdown two years ago. Those, most have concluded, are two separate people.

If Terrell Owens visits evacuees, then auctions off his conference championship ring to raise money for the cause, then posts his thoughts about it on his Web site, it has to be because he's constantly trying to draw attention to himself.

If Chris Duhon of the Chicago Bulls practically single-handedly acts to save his decimated hometown of Slidell, La., with fund raising and a truckload of supplies, then he's the exception to the rule on NBA players.

The same goes for the 30 players (including Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant) who showed up in Houston two weekends ago on short notice to play charity games. Stephon Marbury pledged $500,000, crying almost uncontrollably as he did.

All-Star players have loaded up trucks to send to needy areas, visited shelters and taken evacuees on shopping trips. Eight players from the NBA and WNBA recently traveled by bus to the heart of the ravaged Mississippi coast to personally deliver food and supplies.

None of it appears to be altering the negative image of the league and its players one bit.

Every fan doesn't share these perceptions, but the loud, shrill minority of them helps create and perpetuate them. Portraying these athletes as one-dimensional when they commit acts of such generosity unprovoked by their bosses, agents or publicists is becoming too hard to do right now.

So is admitting that these athletes, ordered to be role models by adults too eager to shift responsibility from themselves, might have done more to save lives in this disaster than the people elected and appointed to do that very job.

Many truths of Katrina are hard to face. If falling back into the familiar routine of vilifying rich, spoiled athletes is a coping mechanism, it might be time to seek another one. Barry Bonds might have had an ulterior motive for raising the issue, but that doesn't make it less valid.

"Talk about the athletes that are helping Katrina. Ask yourselves how much money you all personally donated and have helped," he said Tuesday at RFK Stadium.

Sanders felt the same sentiment: "Before you point the finger, you have to look at yourself."

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