Athletes' opinions can speak volumes

The Baltimore Sun

I'm really glad I don't date Jessica Simpson.

Such heresy would never have crossed these lips not long ago, but I'm starting to think there just might be too many obstacles in the way. This became clear last week when OK! magazine reported that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had burned the pop tart by dumping her after his team's early exit from the NFL playoffs. The next day, however, TMZ.com reported that the couple was still together and presumably happy.

How could a relationship possibly survive when the public is constantly checking the temperature and forecasting its future?

No, Jessica and I probably wouldn't work, but I couldn't be more emphatic when I say that I'm glad Romo is making a go of it. I have the utmost admiration for those who succeed despite unfair demands and unnecessary pressures. Which, of course, naturally brings us to Tiger Woods and Rick Majerus.

Woods last week drew the ire of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who took it upon himself to scold the golfer for failing to take it upon himself to scold a television analyst who used the word "lynch."

"He should have come out right away," Brown told ESPN. "Instead, he waited until it was politically correct."

Woods, of course, has a policy of keeping at least one ocean between himself and any sort of controversial comment.

Exhibit B is Majerus. Unlike Woods, Majerus has never followed the Nike Blueprint for Image Maintenance. The longtime basketball coach ruffled some church feathers by attending a Hillary Clinton rally and voicing his support for stem cell research and abortion rights. That might not normally raise a red flag, but Majerus happens to coach at Saint Louis University, one of the largest Jesuit schools in the country. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said "appropriate action" needed to be taken against Majerus.

So, was Woods wrong for keeping his mouth shut? Was Majerus wrong for opening his?

By virtue of fame and celebrity, our sports stars are afforded soapboxes built off physical prowess and athletic achievement. It's certainly no new phenomenon, but we mistake sports statistics for the numbers surrounding the volume control knob. What an irrational relationship - that one's voice carries farther than others' because one can hit a ball farther than others.

It's Muhammad Ali's fault, right? For most of us, he's not the Greatest of All Time simply because he was a skilled fighter. It's because he always stood for something bigger than sport. As our media ranks have swelled and the news universe and TV air time have become nearly infinite, we ask every top athlete to be bigger than sport today.

Sometimes you get an Etan Thomas. And sometimes you get a Tim Hardaway.

Advocacy is a function of celebrity in our culture. It's why Chuck Norris, Magic Johnson and Oprah Winfrey stand next to presidential candidates. It's why I distinctly recall public-service announcements in which Tony Danza talked about teen pregnancy and that girl from Blossom warned me about sexually transmitted diseases. And it's why we stick a microphone in front of a basketball coach and fool ourselves into thinking that because he can teach the flex offense, his political views somehow carry more weight.

They don't, of course, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be allowed to answer a question and express those views. I usually find it admirable when an athlete or coach has a cause or a position that hints at a social conscience. In fact, that's one of Woods' best qualities. He's done so much, and perhaps his biggest burden is that because of his standing as one of the most recognizable athletes alive, he can always do more.

There seems to be at least one controversy a year about which I find myself wishing Woods would speak out. He has an audience - impressionable, curious and attentive. It was Woods' own father, after all, who declared that the golfer would "do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity." That's a big responsibility, and like Brown, I'd love to see Woods take advantage of his position more often. But I also know it's not fair to begrudge him when he doesn't.

Today's athlete deals with incredible challenges. Hitting a 100 mph fastball ... ignoring the He-Man linebacker and going across the middle for a catch ... making a birdie putt on the 18th green ... it's all part of the job, and when they do it well, we celebrate those athletic achievements.

But it's the other demands that sometimes impress me most. No, not just when he manages to stiff-arm the paparazzi and take a starved supermodel to dinner, but when he uses his position as an athlete to reveal that he's much more than an athlete.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Rick Maese -- Points after

On to Plan D: It seems there's been a slight undercurrent of skepticism aimed at Ravens decision-makers for some aspects of their recent coaching change. Well, looking down the road and watching the Redskins bumble their search should make even the most disheartened Ravens fan appreciate his lot in the NFL universe. The Redskins' situation moved quickly from humorous (a Fire Jim Fassel Web site was started before he has been hired) to sad (the mistreatment of assistant coach Gregg Williams, who was fired yesterday). Anything short of Joe Gibbs taking over team ownership and the Redskins' offseason can be safely stamped as a failure.

Owner talk: Somewhere, Peter Angelos is talking to Al Davis on the phone and they're both saying the same thing: "Geez, Daniel Snyder has no clue how to run a sports franchise."

Ticking clock: In one corner Erik Bedard thinks the Orioles didn't try hard to sign him to an extension. In the other, the Orioles say Bedard wasn't interested in a long-term extension in the first place. I don't think it really matters who's closer to the truth. Bedard's value to this franchise is as trade bait. The Orioles' ability to move him will be the difference between a successful offseason and a disappointing one.

That said ... : I wake up each morning thinking: That Miguel Tejada trade smells pretty brilliant.

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