You remember that game, “Whisper down The Lane”? A kid whispers something in your ear, real fast, maybe, “Sally sells seashells,” and you whisper it real fast to the kid next to you, and he whispers it to the next kid, and 10 kids later, the sentence comes out, “Sally smells jingle bells.”

What if it came out, “Sally does drugs”? Or “Sally gambles”? Or does that kind of whispering only happen in the adult world?

Tuesday afternoon, I went down to Joe Louis Arena, where the St. Louis Blues were practicing. Adam Oates was with them. You remember Oates — a promising young star who, 1 1/2 years ago, was traded by the Red Wings with Paul MacLean for Tony McKegney and an aging hero named Bernie Federko. It was a terrible trade, as bad as they come. Oates became an instant sensation in St. Louis, and MacLean is also prospering there. McKegney played 14 games for the Wings and was traded; Federko retired after one season.

When the heat came down — “Why did they make such a move?” — Red Wings management began to squirm. And then I started to hear things about Oates. Rumors. Whispers. “Did you know he had a drug problem?”

This was news to me. I’d known Oates while he was here. He always seemed pretty straight.

“Well,” these voices said, “he was a big party guy. He was getting out of control. That’s why the Wings traded him.”

Other reporters said it, but much of it seemed to come from the Wings’ front office. Was it intentional? Or was it another case of whisper, whisper, whisper?

He doesn’t get it

I went to the arena, I found Oates, and I asked him. Face to face. He dug his hands in his pockets, sighed, and said he’d heard all these whispers, too.

“My drug problem,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You saw me play. Did I play like a had a drug problem?

“I was a single guy here. I went out a lot. So what? I never abused myself. I never went out the night before a game.

“When these rumors came up, I didn’t want to debate them, because if you do, you look cheap. I don’t want to be that kind of person. . . .

“And I was never confronted with these rumors by the Wings. As far as I was told, I was traded for (Federko’s) leadership.”

When that leadership did not materialize, however, maybe there needed to be another reason for trading Oates. Maybe this drug thing was convenient. Maybe there was this story about Oates’ phone number showing up in the book of a guy arrested for drugs in a bar. Never mind that Oates had an explanation. He said he knew the DJ at this bar and had given him his phone number. Maybe that’s how it ended up in the other guy’s book.

“Come on, just because you go to a bar where some people do drugs doesn’t mean you do them,” Oates said. “Maybe the Wings were trying to cover themselves on the trade with this stuff.

“I don’t have a drug problem. I never did. When you’re single and like to go out, I guess it goes with the territory.” When you assume . . .

Well. Maybe. I’ve heard a lot about this rumor “territory.” Isiah Thomas has been there lately. So has William Bedford. Bob Probert, I think he lives there. If I had a nickel for every time someone called to tell me he’d seen Probert drinking in a bar, I’d be writing this column from Acapulco.

The point is, there’s a difference between accepting “the territory” and becoming an assumption. And that’s what often happens to people in the spotlight. People assume they must have done it — whatever it is. Drugs. Gambling. Cheating. And the sad part is, they are often right. Pete Rose originally laughed when someone said he gambled. Remember? Ben Johnson originally said someone spiked his water bottle with steroids. Remember?

So people lie. But not everybody. And it’s not fair to assume just because someone might have the money or the status to get into trouble, they always go that route.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who figure because they have the money and the status, they can get away with anything. So will a player lie to protect himself? Sometimes. Will an organization lie to protect itself? Sometimes.

In the end, I’ve found, you can only believe your facts and your instincts.

This is what my instincts tell me: Don’t assume every rumor is true. Hang up on people who report bar sightings. You got a question, go ask it yourself. So I did.

I don’t think Adam Oates ever had a drug problem. I base that on knowing him and on talking to him. It must have been embarrassing for him to have to answer the questions I asked, and I regret that. Maybe it’s no accident that in many religions, slander is a major sin.

And yet, whispering down the lane remains a huge part of the American sports game. Jose Canseco and steroids. Mike Tyson and woman-beating. Probert and every bar in Detroit. It’s a shame. Sure, sometimes a whisper is the beginning of a truth. But sometimes Sally really does sell seashells, not jingle bells. So think before you start the next rumor.

After all, what if we were talking about you?

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