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In court of public opinion, shots at redemption few

ORLANDO, FLA. — ORLANDO, Fla. - The drama unfolds with little suspense.

An athlete is accused. The fans flinch. Management distances itself. The public relations specialists strategize.

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It's no longer about the crime or the accusation; it's about protecting the image.

When push comes to shove - or when push becomes a scuffle and then a headline - a professional athlete's image is more important than any statistic or championship ring.

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And because of this image - often served by the media and swallowed whole by adoring fans - professional athletes are not always afforded one of the basic tenants of American law.

"They're guilty until proven innocent," said Paul Haagen, a professor of law at Duke University.

The court of public opinion is not patient or predictable, as Darrell Armstrong, the beloved Orlando Magic player, will learn.

Armstrong, whose own image mirrors the squeaky-clean, family-friendly persona the Magic sells to fans, was arrested early yesterday morning, accused of injuring a police officer. Armstrong, 35, was booked into the Orange County jail, charged with battery on a law-enforcement officer and resisting arrest without violence. He was released after posting $1,000 bond.

According to police, Armstrong tried to enter a full taxi outside a downtown nightclub. When he was denied a ride, he stood in traffic. An officer suffered two sprained fingers as police had to physically remove Armstrong from the street.

"It was just an unfortunate accident that probably never should have happened on both parts to be honest with you," Armstrong said.

The incident comes on the heels of an even more shocking NBA criminal accusation and a series of social faux paus among college coaches:

NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was arrested over the weekend and accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Colorado resort. He has not been charged, and prosecutors say it could be days before a decision is made.

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Larry Eustachy, the former Iowa State men's basketball coach, was drinking with coeds and fraternizing with frat boys at a college party. He lost his job.

Mike Price, who lasted just a few weeks as Alabama's football coach, visited a strip club and reportedly took a dancer back to his hotel room. He lost his job.

Rick Neuheisel, Washington's ex-football coach, won an office basketball pool. He lost his job, though he's appealing his dismissal.

Whether or not any committed a crime, each suffered and each failed to nurture an image. Image making and shaping is an entire industry, and when a celebrity slips up, clean-up crews are quickly called into action.

"We live in a society where we want our information on the snap of a finger and we make our judgments even quicker," said Bob Williams, of Burns Celebrity Service in Chicago.

It is no accident that Bryant has not said a word in his own defense since his arrest.

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"You got to let the situation fully right itself and then comment and then do your damage control," Williams said. "Look at Sammy Sosa; he hurt himself ... by coming out so quickly and trying to defend himself."

Sosa, the Chicago Cubs' slugger, was publicly lambasted for using a corked bat in a game last month. While not a crime, baseball gave him a seven-game suspension. Fans sentenced him to humiliation.

Like Bryant, Sosa had a pristine public image. Unlike Bryant, Sosa immediately opened his mouth. His reasoning - that he used the corked bat before games to wow the fans - opened him up to even more criticism.

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a renowned think tank for journalists in St. Petersburg, says it isn't a journalist's intent to destroy heroes - it's often feeding a public hunger. He says many "take pleasure in the demise of others."

Pat Williams disagrees. Williams is the Orlando Magic's president and he has been studying scandal. His latest book, American Scandal, hits bookshelves this week.

"We live in a society that does not want our heroes to fail," he said. "No one wants Kobe Bryant smeared. We want him to succeed." (Williams was involved in a scandal of his own last year, when he signed a letter many viewed as anti-gay.) The exposure - and often overexposure - of an athlete's fall often mirrors the attention given to their rise.

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"When you're an NBA player, the media is going to put you on a pedestal," said Steven Hunter, a Magic player who was with Armstrong on Sunday night.

Armstrong has been a fan favorite for years. He has supported several charities and also been accessible to the media.

"Image is very important to us," Williams said. "And it's important to the league. These players are our identity. It isn't worth it to put yourself in a risky situation. The price that you pay is so severe."

Yet Eustachy and Price are in the positions of trying to repair their respective images. Most agree that won't be a problem.

Just look at cases involving Mike Tyson, Allen Iverson and the Ravens' Ray Lewis, said Nova Lanktree, the executive vice president of player marketing for CSMG International, an Illinois firm that connects athletes with advertisers. They are popular athletes who were accused of crimes and still make millions in playing contracts and endorsement deals. Many athletes use their tough-guy image as a marketing tool.

"I read an article about [NBA player] Tim Duncan and it was talking about how dull and boring he is," Lanktree said. "What kind of statement is it when law-abiding, good work ethic, good citizen is dull and boring, and insubordinate, criminal behavior is interesting? "Does image matter? Apparently not."

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Rick Maese is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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