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That's Why the Rapist Is a Champ


Boston. -- It was as if he'd come out of retirement, not out of jail. As if his name were Michael Jordan, not Mike Tyson.

From the moment the boxer and rapist left the Indiana prison March 25, the public speculation wasn't about where he'd been, but whether he'd make a comeback. It wasn't about what he'd learned, but how much he'd atrophied.

Mike Tyson spent 1,095 days as 922335. But the only figures that seemed to matter were the ones on boxing's bottom line. And when he went back to New York last week, he was greeted as if he were still Number One.

In other towns, wary citizens may want to know where the sex offenders sleep. But in Harlem this offender was welcomed by thousands as a hero.

In other towns, an ex-con may skulk onto his old terrain. But on 125th Street in the blistering heat, this man was met by a reggae band and cheers. And at the charitable offices where he delivered a $100,000 check, the children danced and sang "The Mike Tyson Rap:" "True, he's not your mom or your pops, but in some households he's got more props" -- respect.

What a role model. What a day. Despite the controversy that erupted over plans for this celebration, despite the efforts of African-American women who held a candlelight vigil against violence the night before this rally, Tyson starred in a duly labeled "Day of Redemption." But he was "redeemed" without ever admitting his guilt.

This is what makes Tyson's return to the center ring of attention a cause for bleak thoughts, not celebrations. This is why Maya Angelou's words -- in support of Tyson -- for once rang hollow, devoid of rhythm or reason. This is why the prodigal son can't be welcomed home again.

Three years ago, when Tyson was put on trial for rape, more than a few Americans saw the boxer as the star and Desiree Washington as the woman who brought him down. At a black church rally held in Indianapolis back then, a woman preached, "We're here tonight because a brother is in the fight for his life." In defense of the brother, she drummed the 18-year-old victim out of the sisterhood.

Mike Tyson, who once said, "I like to hurt women when I make love to them. I like to hear them scream. . . . It gives me pleasure." Mike Tyson, who had been accused again and again of grabbing, insulting, assaulting women. Mike Tyson who was convicted of rape. He was the "brother," the hero.

Some of his fans simply don't care what he's done outside the ring. Others believe, against all odds and evidence, in his innocence. But the sorriest part of the story is that among those who refuse to acknowledge his guilt is Mike Tyson.

He came out of prison subdued, converted to Islam, but not repentant. When someone asked Tyson if he was sorry, his irrepressible promoter Don King shouted, "Sorry for what? Come on!" When someone asked about his history of violence to black women, his manager said, "Mike Tyson is not going to sit up here and answer silly questions. I'm not going to let him sit here and be disrespected."

The Tyson defenders at the rally described him as both innocent and redeemed. Again and again he was referred to as a wronged man. Again and again he was compared to the prodigal son. But he can't be both.

"All I know is he deserves another chance," said one man. "He done the crime, he did the time, leave him alone," said a woman.

Well, I believe in second chances, reform and redemption. Maybe especially for the 29-year-old fatherless son of an alcoholic mother who was "saved" from the violence of the streets for the violence of the boxing ring.

But the biblical prodigal son came home asking for forgiveness. True redemption starts with the acknowledgment of guilt. How can you forgive someone who steadfastly denies that he did anything wrong?

Tyson is surrounded by men who care about two things: his fists and their wallets. He is a free man and has every right to fight again. But he hasn't won the right to "props," to respect.

It isn't just some folks in Harlem who should be challenged for supporting this un-repenter. It's the owners of Showtime and MGM Grand who will televise his August fight. It's the fans who will ante up and tune in.

The message to your wives and daughters isn't about redemption. It's about the willingness to overlook and deny sexual violence. It says that in America, there are still too many people who think the rapist is a "champ."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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