Late last month, figure skater Tonya Harding, who has a documented record of misbehavior, was accused of throwing a hubcap in her boyfriend's face and punching him. This prompted Bill Bickel, a writer on the Internet for About.com, to muse, "You have to wonder how long it'll be before Harding will be able to assault somebody without it being national news."
In fact, if Harding, who came to our attention when she participated in planning a bizarre attack on United States Olympic team competitor Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, was just another person in just another domestic battle, we'd never have known about the hubcap assault.
But because she is an athlete, far different perceptions apply.
We see it in the latest bevy of athletes going off the rails in various ways. There's Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker, who made wild and politically incorrect statements in a national magazine story; there are the two NFL football players, Rae Carruth and Ray Lewis, involved in murder accusations; there's Darryl Strawberry of the Yankees, again run amuck in cocaine.
The historical litany would take up pages. A few examples: boxer Mike Tyson, former hoops star David Thompson ("I had the ability to be one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game, and I blew it"), football player O.J. Simpson, baseball's Denny McLain (who won 31 games in 1968, most of any pitcher in the modern era, and has spent years in prison for being involved in racketeering and other wrongdoing).
Then there are NFL stars Randy Moss, Michael Irvin, Leon Lett, and Warren Sapp. A recent book says that 1 in 5 pro- football players has been charged with or convicted of a serious crime.
Seldom does a day go by, and certainly not a week, without an athlete hitting the spotlight because of dastardly behavior. The common perception is that the world of sport has become the world of thugs.
That's neither fair nor accurate.
It seems that way because celebrity makes all that they do fodder for media reports. And it is we fans who grovel in celebrity tales. We are the same way with Hollywood stars. We certainly know more - because we seem to want to know more - about their escapades than we do our next door neighbor's. And if a president of the US would ever be involved in anything unseemly, admittedly unlikely, we would be drawn to it like dew to grass.
When major national magazines decide to raise prices, they typically put the biggest celebs possible on the cover - the big three for eons were Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Muhammad Ali - to divert attention from the increase.
As a people, we generally say we don't like gossip and chatter regarding behavior of others. Unfortunately, our buying and viewing habits don't back up our rhetoric.
All of this reflects changing mores. Time was that being charged with or arrested for even a minor offense was a horrid humiliation. Today, people who become entwined in outrageous situations seem delighted to write tell-all books and blab on talk TV. Athletes used to be role models, for the most part. Or were they?
In days of yore, when Ruth and DiMaggio were celebrated, the media - primarily newspapers then - covered up for them. Reporters and athletes were on the same side, pulling for the players and the home team. Former Yankee manager Casey Stengel used to refer to "my writers." Reporters and athletes traveled together for days. Nary an untidy word slipped to the public.
There is no convincing evidence that athletes are any worse behaved now than before. There's every reason to believe that athletes and the remainder of the populace conduct themselves similarly and proportionately - and always have. This is not to sugarcoat unacceptable athlete behavior. It is, rather, to put it in fair perspective.
Many murders are not big news. Most drug users are not big news. And a guy on a loading dock can say exactly what John Rocker said and nobody pays any attention, despite it being just as offensive. But if these things involve athletes, they are apt to hit the top of the page.
And we read every word.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society