The only thing Mike Tyson has done really well in his life is to punch people until they fall down.
For this, he became a hero.
OK, we're all agreed that the concept of heroism can be confusing. When we talk about sports heroes, for example, we certainly don't mean they're real heroes. A real-life hero is somebody who runs inside a burning building to pull out the baby left inside.
Sports heroes are heroes in the sense that they're bigger than life. So, sure, Cal Ripken is a hero, even if the most heroic thing he's done is to show up to work every day. I'm here most days myself, but I'm not expecting a parade.
We made a hero out of Scott O'Grady, the Air Force pilot whose plane was shot down over the former Yugoslavia. He's a hero to me because he insisted that he wasn't a hero at all. He called himself a scared rabbit who lived off bugs and rain water and said his rescuers deserved all the praise.
But whether or not O'Grady is an actual hero isn't important.
The Tyson story, though, is important. Most of the time, it doesn't matter when we confuse celebrity and heroics. If you want to be like Mike (Jordan, not Tyson), well, that's OK. We've all had such dreams.
But at some point the symbolism can become dangerous. Mike Tyson is that symbol and that point.
Tyson, a convict rapist, just months out of stir, received what was described as a "hero's welcome" in Harlem yesterday. There was a reggae band. There was much cheering. There were Tyson T-shirts for sale. There were proclamations. There were speeches. In some speeches, Tyson was compared to Malcolm X, who like Gandhi and King, had done jail time. Fifty-two churches signed a letter of support.
Plans for a parade had been called off (you see: There is some sense of shame). But the celebration continued.
Now, in the seamy world of boxing, notoriety is an asset. Jail time gives you cachet. What you bring to the ring are fists and guile and fury, not character.
But the real world, that's supposed to be a different place. In the real world, Tyson had a troubled childhood and grew into a troubled man who troubles women. He has been accused of punching women, fondling them and, in Desiree Washington's case, raping one.
Maybe you recall some of the testimony from his trial. Tyson had attended a Miss Black America contest, the director of which called him a "serial buttocks fondler." Others said worse. The crux of the defense's case was that Tyson's behavior was so monstrous that no one could possibly go off with him without expecting to be mauled or worse.
And so it was the defense attorney who elicited this testimony from Stacy Murphy, a 19-year-old contestant: "(Tyson) was kind of like an octopus. He was touching one girl's breasts, then another girl's behind. He was pretty busy."
And still, Washington, star-struck, just 18, stepped into Tyson's limo and into his hotel room (she even brought her camera). Tyson didn't simply try to seduce her. He raped her.
It gets confusing. It was confusing at the sentencing when a group of black clergymen presented the judge with 100,000 names on a petition pleading for leniency. "We ask the court," they said, "to consider that Mr. Tyson is one of a very few in number of modern-day African-American heroes."
We know what's going on here. And it's tragic. For some, Tyson -- the mauler, the rapist -- becomes a symbol of the beaten-down black man. For some, he is a symbol of a judicial system in which black men don't get a fair shake.
And yet, he raped a black woman. He abused his power and fame. He never learned society's conventions. And, even now, he has never apologized. There was a candlelight vigil in Harlem on Tuesday night to protest violence against women. Tyson was invited but failed to show.
That doesn't mean he shouldn't be given another chance. Certainly, he has the right to fight again (just as we have the right not to watch). And he should be given, as all of us should, a chance at redemption.
Maybe -- and I wouldn't want to bet on it -- he could even become a hero of a kind. But not now. You have to remember what he's accomplished to this point: He's punched people until they fall down. And he's raped a young woman until she cried out in her pain.