Strange as it seems, Mike Tyson's rape conviction is as important a symbol as Magic Johnson's AIDS virus. Too often we misplace the significance of our athletes' triumphs. The real lessons, time after time, come from their misdeeds.
Magic Johnson is living proof of the dangers of promiscuity and threat of AIDS to every segment of our society. Mike Tyson is living proof that a major celebrity can be judged guilty of rape, even if he's the most feared boxer on the planet.
Perhaps it's unfair comparing Johnson, a gentle soul, to Tyson, a criminal thug. But both suffered from the same hubris that is so common among the celebrated in this star-struck land -- a hubris found in young and old, rich and poor, black and white.
Johnson thought he could practice unprotected sex with numerous partners and never contract a disease most often associated with homosexuals and IV drug users. Tyson thought he could rape an 18-year-old college freshman and never face a jail term under our criminal-justice system.
The difference is, Tyson committed an act of violence; Johnson simply exercised poor moral judgment. What's more, Johnson acknowledged his human frailty, then vowed to educate others while confronting his life-threatening disease.
Tyson, meanwhile, probably does not understand his mistake, much less his crime. He won't accept responsibility. He'll appeal.
As it stands, he faces 60 years in an Indiana prison. He figures to serve eight to 12 years, even less if he is released on parole. Still, the trial's outcome should reassure women that justice in a male-dominated society doesn't always work one way.
Tyson's defense was that the accuser should have known better than to mingle with such a crude womanizer. The intense national debate over how men should treat women is far from over, but this verdict helps even the score.
Anita Hill could not convince a Senate committee she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. Patricia Bowman could not convince a Palm Beach jury she was raped by William Kennedy Smith. But Tyson's accuser came forward, against the most intimidating man imaginable. Now maybe others will, too.
Thus, some good can come out of this -- just as some good came out of Magic Johnson's admission that he was suffering from HIV. Calls to AIDS hotlines increased dramatically following his announcement. Calls from rape victims to similar hotlines figure to increase now.
"This verdict sends a message to other women who are victims of acquaintance rape -- that they can report these incidents, that they will be listened to, and that justice will be done," said Angelina Anthony, director of client services for the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore.
Anthony said the "odds were stacked" against Tyson's accuser. In criminal cases the prosecution must establish an offense was committed "beyond reasonable doubt." That's an immensely difficult task when sexual consent is so often implied.
Carole Alexander, director of the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women and children in Baltimore, further noted a "power imbalance" between the former heavyweight champion and the teen-ager attempting to become a beauty queen.
"It's obvious the justice system was able to create a level playing field," she said. "That sends a positive message, particularly to women who feel so disempowered both in the act of rape itself and in the process of trying to secure a remedy."
Still, even someone with so pointed an agenda as Alexander sees the gray in this matter. Tyson was a troubled youth who entered reform school at the age of 11. Alexander said that from what she understood, "he was victimized himself as a young person and carried that into his adult life."
Alexander called that "very, very tragic," and in the most liberal sense, she's right. Tyson didn't benefit from an upper-class background like William Kennedy Smith. He didn't even benefit from a middle-class background like Magic Johnson.
Smith, the white preppy, was acquitted. Tyson, the black punk, was convicted. "A very disturbing message," Alexander said, and again she's right. But athletes, like the rest of us, too often seek excuses, both on the playing field and in real life.
Sports can embody the best virtues -- hard work, discipline, the concept of team. But sports also reflect the outside world, a world where the lessons keep getting more painful, more severe. Magic Johnson and Mike Tyson exist in that world. The same as everyone else.