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Athletes haven't changed, but times have

HUBERT MIZELL
Published August 8, 2004

Almost daily, we're told of athletes in trouble. How long before Fox and ESPN get cute, collaborating on a Cops and Jocks series?

Have we reached a penal plateau so offensive as to suggest that a parole officer be added to coaching staffs? Percentages say a comparative few who bruise laws, but the bad boys do stick out like cheekbone warts on a fashion model.

Pros and collegians.

Hurricane charged with abuse. Buccaneer in custody. Gator booked after nightclub melee. 'Nole suspected of shoplifting. Jaguar tests positive for drugs. Bull delinquent on child support.

Constantly, the odious headlines.

When it's a college guy, you will hear chuckles from boosters of rival schools. But, odds are, for them it will soon hit home. Their players getting Mirandized. Even brainiac studs at the Air Force Academy have become defendants.

Raise your hand if you agree being a parent is one of life's most demanding jobs. Coaches can have similar challenges. They're supposed to look after players, making them aware of lurking travails. Noting the looming consequences.

Bad stuff keeps happening.

It is disgusting, but, I wonder, are problems so magnified by modern (and appropriate) media exposure that we tend to diminish wrongdoings from "the good old days?" Coverups were once the rule. Many reporters chose, for generations, to look the other way.

Forty years ago, I heard of guns being packed by ballplayers on one of Florida's major campuses. Linebackers and point guards would do nasty things to other students, many of them women, with little or no concern about getting into trouble.

See no evil, print no evil ...

An old New York baseball writer told me of riding a train with the '27 Yankees. Four reps of Manhattan newspapers were playing cards. A door to the club car flew open. Babe Ruth came bolting through. "Hi, boys," the partying slugger bellowed, hurrying onward.

Seconds later, a woman with a butcher knife came along; in obvious spirited pursuit of the homer king. As she went steaming out of view, journalists shrugged and dealt on. Nobody taking a note. None considered publicizing the incident.

Different times ... different exposure.

It's good when 21st century jocks must deal with situations more by the book. They are aware of sharper policing eyes, even if a stud is running a quart or two low on self control.

Coaches have been warning athletes since Gipp and Gehrig were pups that the spotlight on them is intense. Today's goofups are often complicated and accelerated by illegal drugs.

When the late-night cutups were named Mantle, Hornung or Ruth, there were concerns involving alcohol, but marijuana, coke and steroids were issues yet to be born. Stakes have sadly escalated. Money also has become a whopper factor.

Coaches, some too slow to penalize, can have a calling akin to impossible. They deal with many blokes who are bloated with arrogance, nauseatingly short on respect and not so fearful of discipline as jocks of yore.

In addition to roles as recruiters, organizers, architects, academic tutors and goodwill ambassadors, coaches also can be asked to operate as investigator, judge or warden.

But that's how it is.

We expect a load of exemplary work from Bowden, Coker, Zook, Leavitt, Del Rio, Wannstedt, Gruden and their kind, but coaches cannot spend 24/7 alongside their 75-95 young feisties. There are never enough eyes to keep full tabs.

Honor systems are badly needed.

As long as coaches amply prepare athletes, drilling home the ugly potential of pitfalls ... and if they react appropriately in dealing with jocks in trouble ... it is work ever bit as worthy of cheers as a game-winning or trophy-winning touchdown.

How's your favorite coach doing?

E-MAILBOX: Seeing Ricky Williams retire from the NFL at 27, Michael Harris of Oldsmar writes, "I'm amazed at how few gifted athletes have true passion for their game." ... Jena Talbot of Tampa found satisfaction "in seeing Mike Tyson, the heavyweight bum, knocked flat on his outclassed butt, hopefully putting an end to a career of mangled opportunities." ... Tim Morris of Largo offers, " Andy Roddick is the best American tennis talent since Pete Sampras, but even his best efforts are smothered by a budding all-time great, Roger Federer of Switzerland." ... Matt Sanders of St. Pete Beach says, "As Bucs camp begins, I miss John Lynch a lot, but not the scandalous tongues and overrated talents of Keyshawn Johnson and Warren Sapp."

Hubert Mizell can be contacted at mmizell02@earthlink.net

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