It could be that Michael Irvin and Erik Williams are innocent of the sexual assault allegations that have landed them back in the headlines this week.
But what does it say about the Dallas Cowboys that the claims were not dismissed as outrageous and unbelievable by the public?
It says that the public has come to expect such disgraceful behavior from the players on pro football's most loved and loathed team.
That is going to have to change. And it will change only when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recognizes that his responsibilities sometimes include more than just winning.
We probably won't know for weeks about the veracity of the latest allegations, in which Williams is accused of raping a woman while Irvin held a gun to her head. Irvin and Williams have denied it. Their accuser had a working relationship with the television station that broke the story. Shamefully, Dallas police named names before interviewing either defendant.
If the story is true, Irvin will go to jail for violating the probation he received on a drug charge last summer. Williams, who settled out of court with a 17-year-old topless dancer on a prior assault charge, probably will go to jail, too.
If the story is false, the TV station and Dallas police owe the players apologies for vilifying them in public when they had done no wrong.
But even if the Cowboys somehow dodge this public relations bullet, does anyone doubt that another will soon follow?
The Cowboys are a wonderful football team, winners of three of )) the past four Super Bowls, but their locker room has been so poisoned by a brazen disregard for the law and sheer decency that, as safety Bill Bates said, "it makes you sick to your stomach."
The league office can't stop them, coach Barry Switzer can't stop them and they obviously can't stop themselves. Only the owner can stop them. And it is time for Jones to act.
All teams have problems, and problem players -- the Ravens lost one to a substance-abuse violation and another to accusations of battering his girlfriend this season -- but the Cowboys have so many of both that it has become an embarrassment.
They have endured six drug suspensions in the past 14 months, as many as the rest of the league combined. They have endured Irvin's drug case, in which he was caught in a motel room with two strippers. They have endured Williams' prior assault case.
To say that the players are running wild is an understatement. One former player, linebacker Robert Jones, recently said he was looked upon with disfavor because he was a faithful husband and devoted father. He said he respected Irvin and Charles Haley as players, but not for what they did off the field.
Is it any wonder that the public wasn't shocked by these latest allegations?
As guard Nate Newton said, anything short of murder is OK with the Cowboys.
The shame is that Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and many other Cowboys players are upstanding citizens worthy of admiration. But Irvin, Williams, Leon Lett and the others have transformed the team into sports' most prominent symbol of arrogance and immorality.
Where have you gone, Roger Staubach?
It is wrong to blame Switzer. He was at fault when his Oklahoma teams ran wild in the late '80s, but he was supposed to control his players as a college coach. The pros are adults. They're supposed to control themselves.
Switzer could suspend the players, but those decisions aren't his. Jones signs the checks. Jones pays the players who have won three Super Bowls. Jones is running the franchise. It is up to Jones to decide what behavior warrants meaningful fines and suspensions, or kicking players off the team.
True, pro football is about winning, not legislating morality. Few other owners would have suspended Irvin beyond the five games that the league dictated last fall. Few other owners would remove an important player from the lineup.
But when a team goes too far, an owner has to step in and adhere to a higher set of standards -- one that includes more than just winning. The Cowboys have gone too far, regardless of whether Irvin and Williams are innocent or guilty.
The franchise can't continue this run of losing players to drugs and run-ins with police. As a popular, semipublic institution, the Cowboys have a responsibility to do their best to have players with integrity. The popularity of football and other sports depends on it. People are getting tired of cheering for bums.
The Cowboys aren't living up to that responsibility.
It was different when the original bad Cowboy, Lance Rentzel, was arrested for exposing himself to a minor in 1970.
He never played another down for the team.
Jones would do well to heed that chapter of Cowboys history the next time one of his players makes the police blotter.
Pub Date: 1/04/97