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When heroes falter, it's forgive or forget

Disgrace: Some athletes rebound while others sink into obscurity, but being straightforward helps.

By Childs Walker

Sun Staff

August 7, 2005

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Ray Lewis was accused of murder. Latrell Sprewell choked his coach. Muhammad Ali refused to go to war and was labeled a traitor.

All rebounded to attain greater stature than before.

Ben Johnson was stripped of a gold medal days after he set a sprint record. Tonya Harding conspired to have a rival figure skater clubbed in the knee, and never seriously contended again. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and went to prison for three years.

None ever quite emerged from the darkness.

Some of history's greatest athletes have fallen from grace, and there's little telling whether they will rise again. This is the uncertain reality faced by Rafael Palmeiro as he prepares to return from suspension for a positive steroid test, which tarnished a legacy he had just cemented by getting his 3,000th hit.

The athletes who endure best, said marketers and agents, are those who address their troubles head-on and return to the field.

"Tell it early, tell it all and tell it yourself," said Lanny Davis, who advised the Clinton White House on media crises. "The rules are the same whether you're a president, a corporate CEO or a baseball player."

Davis said apologizing works on the most basic human level and shouldn't be much different for a superstar than for a little boy who has broken his grandpa's favorite porcelain bird.

"It seems counterintuitive, but people want to forgive," he said. "If [Palmeiro] tells them what he's done and he does it himself, he will be forgiven."

"So far," Davis added, "he's broken every rule."

Legal issues (such as possible perjury before Congress) can get in the way of a clean apology, said longtime Baltimore agent Ron Shapiro.

"But if you play games or have your representatives continue to deflect the issue, the public will continue viewing you in a negative light," he said.

Others said Palmeiro's fall might be particularly hard, because, though he has never been a huge celebrity, he has always been known as a clean-living, hard-working, modest man. Few seemed to doubt him in March, when he wagged his finger in the air and denied steroid allegations before a congressional panel.

"If you've built an identity in the sport on being a goody guy, you just have farther to fall," said Peter Carlisle, an Oregon-based agent who has represented numerous Olympians, including Michael Phelps.

Carlisle helped advise Phelps after the 19-year-old swimmer was charged with drunken driving in November.

But Carlisle said steroids might be a different beast in crisis management. "It was a large, abstract issue for so long, that it's just not a cut-and-dried problem," he said. "It's a complex problem that goes beyond the individual."

Politics have muddled the matter, agreed Shapiro, who has represented Orioles stars from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken.

"What makes it different is that it's not only a legal issue, but it's been made a political issue," said Shapiro, who took care to say he's not passing judgment on Palmeiro. "That makes the athlete much more vulnerable."

People in the political game, he said, "will keep stirring the pot and stirring the pot."

Image crises of all sorts have been part of sports for a century.

Babe Ruth was pilloried when an ulcer (attributed to hard living) and a standoff with manager Miller Huggins caused him to miss much of the 1925 baseball season. Paul Hornung, the "Golden Boy" halfback from Notre Dame, was suspended for the 1963 NFL season after admitting he had gambled on football. Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins was as lauded a high school basketball player as New York ever produced, but he couldn't swoop through the NBA until 1970 - past his prime - because of point-shaving allegations.

Athletes have endured such traumas in an equal variety of ways.

Ali had integrity on his side, and as national sentiment turned against the Vietnam War, he became a hero for his stance against the draft.

Phelps modeled the pre-emptive approach to image rehab. Sports marketers said his DUI arrest would tarnish the swimmer's wholesome image as a relentless worker who felt at ease in his local pancake joint.

But Phelps didn't let such doubts linger.

He called news outlets shortly after the arrest, apologizing, taking responsibility for his mistake and saying he would talk to school groups about the dangers of drunken driving.

"In my view, if you ever can, you have to have the athlete face the public," Carlisle said. "The sooner you come to terms with the fact you made a mistake and you weren't above making it, the better for the athlete."

Carlisle even encouraged reporters to ask the young star about his troubles. "It's part of his life," he said. "You can't tiptoe around it."

Forty-two years after his gambling suspension, Hornung said that's exactly the advice he would give to Palmeiro and others.

"The most forgiving part of the American public is the sports fans," said the former Green Bay star.

Hornung said coach Vince Lombardi was his guide through the storm. "He gave me pretty good advice, which was, 'Stay at the foot of the cross, keep your nose clean and don't let me see you at the track,'" the Hall of Famer recalled.

Another traditional remedy for sullied performers has been the return to on-field dominance. Consider Ray Lewis.

Before being charged with murder, the middle linebacker was revered for his fierce play. But he was the object of some concern because he hung with a rough crowd and liked to party.

Then he was charged with murder after two men were stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub in January 2000. Images of Lewis' bullet-pocked limo clogged the airways.

Prosecutors later dropped the murder charge in exchange for testimony against other defendants, but only after Lewis spent more than a month in jail and sat through the beginning of a trial.

The Ravens star received mixed reviews for his behavior after he was cleared. He said he felt for the victims' families but lashed out at the prosecutors who had charged him.

"Where am I going from here?" Lewis said at the time. "Back to what I've been doing, playing football and enjoying what I do, showing kids that there's still a passion for the game even though you're falsely accused about certain things."

He then followed his own prescription, doing his best rehab work on the field, where he terrorized ball carriers as the star of history's stingiest defense. If he wasn't exactly beloved after winning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors (he didn't get to do the traditional Disney World plug), he was respected.

Tales of his partying faded away, and he became known as a football nerd - always in shape, unwilling to coast on any snap, a relentless student of game film.

Within a few years, he was starring in commercials for Reebok and EA Sports, and now he owns a local barbecue joint, just as a good old Colt might have.

Sprewell followed a similar model. He never expressed much regret for choking coach P.J. Carlesimo in December 1997, certainly not enough for the writers who mercilessly ripped him during his 68-game suspension. But a trade to the New York Knicks gave him a fresh shot, and when his breakneck play led the team through an improbable run to the NBA Finals in 1999, he became the toast of America's biggest town.

The playing field might prove less of a haven for Palmeiro, because his scandal undermines the perception of his performance.

"It's going to be tough, because the issue is going to stir for a long time," Shapiro said.

One element for most of those athletes who were unable to come back from controversy was an inability to perform at the same level athletically.

Johnson, a Canadian sprinter known for his crazily bulging thighs, exploded past Carl Lewis to become the world's fastest human at the 1988 Olympics. Days later, he tested positive for stanozolol, the same steroid reportedly found in Palmeiro's system.

Johnson lost his gold medal and worldwide respect. Worse, when he returned to competition, he was a shadow of his former self, too slow to win preliminary heats, much less beat a new wave of sprinting greats.

Harding was considered America's leading skater in 1994, before the bizarre unraveling of a conspiracy involving her live-in ex-husband and three men who assaulted rival Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible metal baton. Though Harding went on to skate at the Olympics, she stumbled and broke a bootlace on her way to eighth place. She never won a significant competition again.

Tyson had already slipped a few notches when he went to prison for rape in 1992, but many still considered him the most fearsome fighter in the world. He would recapture a version of the heavyweight title after leaving jail, but he couldn't beat his main rival, Evander Holyfield, and in his last title shot, he was reduced to a helpless, bleeding lump by Lennox Lewis.

The former boxing phenom bit a chunk from Holyfield's ear, blew his fortune on women, posse members and pet tigers, said he wanted to eat Lewis' children, got his face tattooed days before one bout and ... well, those are just some highlights.

The figure skater ended up on television, boxing Clinton antagonist Paula Jones (at least Harding won this time). That was only after she was evicted and worked in a graveyard as punishment for throwing a hubcap at her ex-husband's head.

No, Palmeiro's situation occupies the realm of the sad rather than the ridiculous. That poignancy is key, according to Davis, who said he learned from Clinton that when it comes to image repair, "It's almost never too late."