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10-05-2006, 09:05 AM
The nonstick league

By David Steele


Another NFL player - this time, the Ravens' B.J. Sams - got busted the other day, but don't worry about it leaving any taint on the league's reputation. When all is said and done, the NFL's image will remain pristine.

Meet the league's most valuable employee, its executive vice president in charge of Teflon.

There has to be someone with that title in the league offices, right?

This has been the Year of the Knucklehead in America's favorite sports league, but its position remains utterly unchallenged, while every other sport pays for player misbehavior in dollars and credibility.

How? If this is a forgiving nation, why hasn't it forgiven baseball for McGwire, Palmeiro and Bonds (and, maybe, Clemens)? If it's the land of second chances, when does the sport of Sprewell and Artest get its second chance?

Are autumn Sundays in front of the plasma screen so sacred that looking the other way is that easy? Why is every other sport held to a different standard than this one? What is it about the NFL that has earned it a singular benefit of the doubt?

Sorry, no answers here. All you'll get are the facts:

Since the end of the games of two Sundays ago, the Bengals' Odell Thurman and Chris Henry, the Chargers' Terrence Kiel and Sams all have run afoul of the law. Henry - not arrested in this case but with a lengthy record of his own - was particularly afoul, punctuating Thurman's arrest on DUI charges by vomiting out of his teammate's car window.

Sams' arrest early Tuesday morning was also drunken-driving related, his second in little more than a year. Just for variety, Kiel got himself arrested last week in his team's locker room on charges that he took part in a cough syrup-shipping scam.

And this doesn't even include the Titans' Albert Haynesworth stomping on the un-helmeted head of an opponent on the field Sunday. Or the shooting of the Chargers' Steve Foley by an off-duty cop on the eve of the season opener.

And, lest we forget, four other Bengals were charged with various infractions since the end of last season. So were Ricky Manning, Santonio Holmes, Reuben Droughns and Jake Plummer. Sean Taylor was fined by the league after his plea agreement on assault and gun charges. Fred Smoot and Bryant McKinnie were fined for similar pleas after the Vikings' party boat incident from last season.

Oh, have we mentioned the reported involvement of the Carolina Panthers in performance-enhancing drugs obtained by an illegal prescription from a doctor, and used the year they went to the Super Bowl?

Studies have been commissioned and books have been written about the crime rate among NFL players, so this isn't quite a new phenomenon. However, on the too-rare occasion that serious questions have been asked, they are haughtily dismissed by league officials (former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was a master of this). Usually, nobody presses the point.

If only other sports were that lucky. They've been dragged through the mud by fans and media for less.

There is no way the NBA would survive a similar run of arrests in one week, much less over eight months. Despite desperate measures taken by perpetually embattled commissioner David Stern (a dress code, for example), the NBA is still defined by many by its lowest-common denominator.

Yet while it works to reverse that image, the NFL rarely has to face the possibility that the public sees it as a league full of Haynesworths, Thurmans, Smoots or the steroid-inflated Panthers.

Oh yes, steroids and other enhancers. Strictly baseball's issue, in the eyes of no less than the U.S. Congress. The game's credibility, even now during its showcase postseason, is wounded. Yet if any sport ought to flunk the eyeball test on doping, it's not baseball or track or cycling - it's pro football.

But no matter what news surfaces and what current and ex-players admit, eventually the conversation turns back to what celebrity will be in the booth on Monday night.

Understand, of course, that this isn't a case of the other sports being taken off the hook. NBA players definitely went through a stretch of incidents that are unjustifiable in any context. Baseball got into bed with the syringe crowd years ago, so it's only fair that it wakes up covered with puncture marks.

Unlike the other sports, though, NFL players' indiscretions are described as just that, never as symptoms of a serious problem with the culture of the entire league.

Bullets fly, liquor bottles rattle around SUV floors, spouses (and T.O. publicists) rush to call 911, and players can't even trust each other, or respect each other's health and safety. On and off the field, it's becoming the Wild Wild West.

Yet the country's love of the game remains unconditional, and the NFL smirks its way to the bank.

Backlash? That's some other sports' problem. Please address any further questions to the VP for Teflon