Absolving athletes of their dirty deeds

Jul 17 2011 - 4:16pm

PHILADELPHIA -- More and more, modern sports fans are sending one unified message loud and clear: We really don't care what you do or have done or might do off the field. In most, if not all, cases, we really don't care what you do before a play, after a play or in the case of those ugly wads-of-whatever rolling around in some baseball players' mouths, what you do while playing.

"Just get him to the field on Sunday," former Eagle Hugh Douglas said Wednesday amid belly laughs. "I'll hire somebody to hold his hand all week if I have to."

Two local items from this week underline this. The first is the continued reclamation of Michael Vick as a marketing tool. The other is the widely professed and anticipated end of the NFL lockout, at which time the Eagles are expected to make a big push for Redskins bad boy Albert Haynesworth.

Toss in the willingness of small-market Milwaukee to absorb the big salary and bad reputation of Mets reliever Francisco Rodriguez and, well, there is a real sense of see-no-evil running rampant in the stands these days.

As soon as Thursday, Vick is reportedly set to ink a three-year deal worth $1.55 million to endorse MusclePharm, a company that sells supplements and workout-related products. This follows an announcement over the July Fourth weekend that Nike had re-signed Vick to an endorsement deal, four years after dropping him after his involvement in dogfighting became public. It is the first time, said Joe Mahan of Temple University's Sport Industry Research Center, that Nike has reversed field like this -- a trend that seems to find its footing in the overall softening of fans' expectations when it comes to stars.

"Winning cures a lot of ills," Mahan said. "Being runner-up in the NFL MVP voting and winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award have helped -- but I would not go as far as to say the stigma has worn off. While he has had some companies approach him, they are all sport-related brands . . .

"It would be quite different with non-sport brands -- for example, he used to have deals with brands like Coca-Cola and Kraft -- as these typically rely more on the public perception of an athlete."

Time also cures, Mahan said, citing the case of Ray Lewis. A decade after being charged in a double-homicide -- and reaching out-of-court settlements with the victims' families -- Lewis was featured in Old Spice ads last September. Unlike Vick, whose dogfighting conviction is featured at the top of his Wikipedia entry, those nightclub troubles have slipped deep into Lewis' Wikipedia log.

"You have to continue your citizenry and you have to continue to rehab your identity," Mahan said.

Ah, but do you? Vick's reclamation is coming at warp speed compared to Lewis'. And what about Haynesworth, who received a $100 million contract from the Redskins in 2009 -- after numerous arrests and run-ins with the law, after his famous end-zone head-stomping incident in 2006 that resulted in a record fine and suspension. Next month, he goes on trial for misdeamonor sexual assault, accused of fondling a cocktail waitress.

Have the Eagles, once thought to possess a rogue-proof roster, reversed philosophy 180 degrees? Or are they simply in tune with a populace increasingly willing to sacrifice character for characters if it means that long-sought Super Bowl win?

"Eagles fans are tired of Andy Reid and his machine, but they are so desperate for a Super Bowl," said Douglas, now a radio personality on 610-WIP. "As big as the Phillies' parade was, can you imagine if the Eagles ever won a Super Bowl? It would be sooo huge."

Douglas, a member of those "character guy" Eagles teams of a decade ago, now says he and many of those teammates simply slid under the radar back then. The Internet was young. Pictures weren't posted, gossip didn't become fact in the speed of light.

"The only difference between me and Albert Haynesworth or Michael Vick is they got caught and I didn't," he said.

Douglas confessed to two examples. As a player, he once led a police chase through two cities in Ohio before surrendering. Another time he carried a concealed weapon through three states in a rental car.

"I grew up, realized this was not the way to go," he said. "So when I hear Michael Vick will never change, I have to laugh.

"If only you knew . . ."

And that's the point. Vick's behavior thus far has been impressive, but if he played like Rex Grossman, he'd be back in a Virginia Beach condo by now. Haynesworth's now worn out two Super Bowl coaches and if reports are true, he'll have a crack at a third soon. As for Rodriguez, did you think you would live long enough to see Bud Selig's old small-market team take on this costly undesirable for a chance at postseason baseball?

The less we know about some of these guys, the easier it is to root for them. That always has been true. What's new, or seems to be, is that if they can help our team win it all, we really don't care what they've done, what they might do, or what might happen to them in the not-so-distant future.

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