Running from the past
Bucs' Michael Pittman says he is not a woman abuser despite previous alleged incidents.
|[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Michael Pittman, center, was suspended by the NFL after pleading guilty to two misdemeanors for an incident involving his wife.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002
TAMPA -- The police say on that day in July, Michael Pittman did not hit his wife.
But to many, that matters little.
What they see is the ugly face of domestic abuse, an alleged pattern of solving disputes through violent exchanges and an image of a man, with biceps big enough to bring down a moose, taking advantage of a fawn.
This will haunt Pittman, the Bucs' free-agent running back, for the rest of his life. After signing a five-year, $8.75-million contract, Pittman's charge is not only to run from tacklers, but to distance himself from a tarnished past.
"Everyone hears the term domestic violence, and they think I beat up my wife (Melissa)," Pittman said. "That wasn't the case. We had an argument, and I kicked my car. It was my car. And I got arrested for that. The second time, I kicked down a door. People hear the stories, though, and they think I'm a woman abuser. And that's not the case.
"Believe me, I got out of hand. But I didn't know if you kick your own car you can get arrested for that in Arizona. I was in the wrong. But I understand that there will be people out there who are going to judge me as an abuser and not know the facts. Really, I'm a good guy."
The Bucs stand firmly behind the 6-foot, 218-pounder.
"We thought about it before we brought Michael in," general manager Rich McKay said. "We did the background check that we felt necessary from a police and league standpoint. We knew once we went down that path, we were going to get some articles about why this and why that.
"I know the facts that we know. I know how he's been through the counseling side of things. I know what people in Arizona say about him. I feel comfortable about Michael."
Coach Jon Gruden said he is satisfied with what he knows about Pittman's past.
"We're very concerned about all of our players off the field. But at the same time, we've investigated this matter very comprehensively, and we feel that Mike Pittman is a good man," Gruden said. "What's out there for the public is not always 100 percent factual. I believe this young guy is a good guy and will have a bright future.
"He deserves a chance not to live in his past, but in his future. And we're going to help him every way we can to flourish in Tampa Bay, and I'm sure our fans will do the same."
Does Pittman, 26, have a problem?
On July26, Pittman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of criminal trespass and criminal damage stemming from the confrontation with his wife.
Then entering his fourth season in the NFL, he was sentenced to five days in jail and credited for two days served. He also was fined $500 and underwent anger management counseling. The league suspended him for one game.
"I underwent the counseling to try to help myself, and it was a very good experience," Pittman said. "I try to avoid any conflicts as much as I can. Sometimes, you get in the heat of the moment, and you pound the table or kick something on the floor or something like that."
But Pittman had troubles at Fresno State as well. On Aug.29, 1997, Pittman was charged with domestic assault for allegedly battering Lelica Zazaboi, his girlfriend. A Fresno police officer reported seeing Pittman holding Zazaboi by the neck and slamming her face into the seat of a car.
Pittman said the report is false.
"There was this cop car, and he was following us. And we were turning the corner, and he said he saw me slamming her head," Pittman said. "Well, there should have been some scars or bruises. But he made me get out of the car at gun point and made me kneel down in the road. I personally think it was a racist thing."
Pittman pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to a yearlong batterers treatment program and two years of probation. He said he was encouraged to submit the plea by Fresno State coach Pat Hill.
But there was another incident, Sept.25, 1994, in a dormitory on campus, when Pittman and a woman had a dispute.
Although Bob Freed, the Fresno assistant district attorney, was familiar with the incident, the case was not refered to the county's district attorney's office, the Fresno Bee reported.
According to the report, in response to being slapped and pushed by the woman, Pittman tackled her, pushed her head into a brick wall, grabbed her around the neck and pushed her over a bench.
Pittman said those reports also are false and his parents were in the room when the alleged incident occurred. He said he had a broken collarbone at the time and his shoulder was in a sling. So he could not have tackled her. He said that prompted the police to not pursue the case.
"I don't have any question that you can draw certain conclusions (about a history of problems)," McKay said. "But what I can say is that when you're in our business, when you're an employer, you have to give that prospective employee a chance.
"And the way you give him a chance is to do as much research as you can. And if you're comfortable with it, then don't worry about what the fallout will be."
McKay and Gruden said it is unfair to assume the acquisition of Pittman signals a change in the team's philosophy on players with troubled pasts. Former coach Tony Dungy stressed little tolerance for players with criminal issues.
"Tony was a much more open-minded guy than people gave him credit for," McKay said. "That doesn't mean we didn't use scrutiny because we did. And it didn't mean that when people were in our house and they defied house rules that they didn't suffer the consequences."
The Bucs released receiver Darnell McDonald immediately after they found out a warrant had been issued for his arrest for battery charges.
"We have always tried to use the same approach, which is character is an issue coming in the door," McKay said. "That won't change. We have some responsibilities to our own players, to our community and to our fans."
Gruden said it is naive to believe he is more tolerant than his predecessor.
"I'm not the most tolerant person alive either," Gruden said. "I believe in discipline and conformity and all of those things. But I also believe in getting the facts, doing the research and coming to a conclusion. But to throw every one into a pile and say, tolerant or not, you can't do that.
"Sometimes, you can be more tolerant of some people. No two cases are ever the same."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
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