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They can pitch, pass, punch. But athletes are no more or less than ordinary human beings.

By the time you read this, John Rocker could well be volunteering at an AIDS hospice, or signing baseballs at a prison, or shaking hands with little kids at a shelter for battered women. Expiation through public relations: That's the ticket in the modern mediacentric world. Of course, everyone will understand that the left-handed pitcher with the incredible slider, the volcanic temper and the foul mouth will be going through the motions; as Rhett once said to Scarlett in Atlanta, the city where Rocker plays, not sorry he did it, just sorry he got caught.

The words that got him into this mess, the words he spoke to a Sports Illustrated reporter as he zoomed through traffic, stopping to hawk a lugie at a tollbooth and rail against the ineptitude of Asian women drivers, had the ring of truth that only spontaneity and bedrock bigotry have: complaining about riding the subway with "some queer with AIDS," saying that he doesn't like New York because of the foreigners. "How the hell did they get in this country?" Rocker asked.

Here we have a 25-year-old man with an anger-management problem, a deep pool of prejudice about everything from immigration to infectious disease and a singular physical ability. His fast ball has been clocked at 95 miles per hour, which is an interesting trick of the body somewhere between rolling your tongue and dancing en pointe. Yet color commentators, newspaper pundits, even elected officials have felt the need to react to his words.

Who's crazy here? John Rocker, maybe; the wiseacre impulse to call him John Off-His-Rocker is, as you can see, irresistible. But the answer is clearly the crowd, the clamorers, us. Why in the world does anyone think this man is worth listening to, much less worth excoriating?

Informed opinions? Talk to a historian. Heroes? Find an oncology nurse or a good first-grade teacher. But professional athletes? We take their words too seriously and their transgressions too lightly. We should confine our appreciation of their talents to four quarters, nine innings, the evanescent life span of their physical prowess.

That won't be easy. The natural superiority of athletes has been built into the system for so many years that it not only provides them with a platform for bigotry, but sometimes excuses them from felony.

Football player Tito Wooten was signed to an $8 million deal with the New York Giants two years ago, less than a month after a girlfriend who had accused him of beating her up committed suicide in his garage; his past history had included two college expulsions and five arrests, three for violence against women. Christian Peter seems to have majored at the University of Nebraska in football, drinking and sex crimes. He, too, was signed by the Giants, although during college he had pleaded no contest to one charge of sexual assault, served 10 days on a subsequent charge and was accused of twice raping a freshman woman with whom he eventually settled a civil suit.

Lest you be fooled by the argument that all this is merely a reflection of our sick society, there is this: Jeff Benedict, who has written two books about athletes and violence, did a survey of 10 schools, which found that while athletes made up 3 percent of the population, they were responsible for nearly 20 percent of reported sexual assaults.

The Hall of Shame that has become part and parcel of professional sports, which now includes Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers, accused of arranging the murder of a pregnant girlfriend, deserves a different sort of treatment. There should be prosecution, jail time, certainly suspension or expulsion from the team. So far, coaches and owners have been more likely to make excuses than hard decisions.

Actions, not words. That's what the nuns taught me in elementary school, and it still has resonance today. Athletes should be treated like everyone else. A gift of eye-hand coordination should never provide a free pass to bad behavior.

The ones who break the law should be treated as criminals, the ones who talk trash as mindless bigots, and the ones who behave as gentlemen and scholars as people worth listening to. The respect the world now accords Michael Jordan is less about his layup and more about his dignity and off-the-court acumen. John Rocker, on the other hand, talks like a jerk, and his remarks constitute nothing more meaningful than an exercise of the time-honored American right to be one.


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