by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MIAMI– I was awakened Super Bowl morning by a phone call from a radio program that wanted to know if I was shocked.

No. The only thing that shocks me is that a radio program, a TV network, a newspaper reporter or anyone in this tangential business of covering sports thinks they really know what “kind of guy” a player is.

We don’t know anything. Professional athletes hide their bad sides from the outside world with the winking allegiance of teammates, agents, coaches and sycophants. It’s not just the media. Earlier on Saturday — the same day that Robinson, the Atlanta free safety, was accused of soliciting a hooker — he was given the Bart Starr Award for “high moral character” by Athletes in Action. I guess they thought they knew what “kind of guy” he was, too.

High moral character? Based on what? Some visible charity work? Making a few commercials? I can find you 100 counselors, teachers and ministers who do more in a week than Robinson does all year — and they are never celebrated, or given a plaque.

“High moral character” may be easily etched on the bottom of an award, but that doesn’t make it so. And portraying yourself as a player who wouldn’t do something deceitful and stupid the night before a big game apparently does not make it so, either.

Robinson wanted attention

Of course, being arrested didn’t keep Robinson from playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl. The police released him to the Falcons’ general manager. And hours later, he was running through the tunnel at Pro Player Stadium.

What hypocrisy. Here is Eugene Robinson talking earlier in the week, when thousands of reporters were writing down the glib speeches he delivered:

“I set an example. I have experience. I’m telling all the guys on our team, don’t come to practice tired because you will hear about it! Nighttime is for sleeping!”

This from the same guy who allegedly asked an undercover cop for oral sex less than 24 hours before kickoff.

But then, the speeches, the glibness, the outrageous statements, these were all part of Robinson’s “act” this week. Many players now come to the Super Bowl with an “act.” They see this game as a chance to market themselves for bigger and better things.

So Ray Buchanan, the Atlanta defensive back, came in “guaranteeing” a win and wearing a dog collar. Shannon Sharpe, the strangely unfunny and unoriginal tight end for Denver, who is celebrated for being funny and original, spent all week running his motor mouth, only to spend most of the actual Super Bowl on the bench with an injury.

And Robinson, the Pro Bowl safety. He had a huge crowd around him all week. He told everyone how his excellent reputation and his experience in three straight Super Bowls would be instructional for younger players. He told everyone how Atlanta was a great, undiscovered team that nobody respected.

“We’re like Superman. Most of the time we’re Clark Kent. But then somebody calls ‘Superman! Superman!’ And there we come!”

Reporters laughed. They scribbled it down. They fed the gobbling media machine that makes images in this country.

And none of those images are remotely close to the truth.

If Robinson were so much about teaching the younger players, what was he doing in downtown Miami, after dark, the night before the Super Bowl? If he’s such a
“focused” athlete, why is he allegedly asking an undercover cop for oral sex? And if he’s such a family man, a leader, an award winner of “high moral character,” then what about the fact that his wife and family were in town? Why wasn’t he with them instead of on the street?

Maybe he figured since no reporters were around, it didn’t count.

Respect? Guess again

Now a few things need to be understood here. Robinson would not be the first player to carry on badly the night before the Super Bowl. He wouldn’t even be the first one to do it the night before a Miami-based Super Bowl. Ten years ago, in this same town, Stanley Wilson, a Cincinnati fullback, disappeared the night before the game in a drug-induced stupor. He never played again.

And there are questions to be asked of the Falcons, as well. Such as why did Dan Reeves, the coach, not bench Robinson for the game? While a man is innocent until proven guilty, there’s no denying this disrupted the team, no matter what they might say. As it turned out, Robinson played like a man distracted. He had an awful Super Bowl, and got burned on the biggest play of the game, an 80-yard bomb from John Elway to Rod Smith that left Robinson flat-footed, running three yards behind.

Another question for Reeves: Why not have some sort of team activity (or at least a team meeting) planned for Saturday night as a hedge against the temptations of a party town like Miami? Perhaps that’s treating men like children. But they already have a curfew. And if you’ve watched any of the silly prancing and dancing going on with the players this week, you’re tempted to say, “If they’re gonna act like children …”

Still, none of this is the true lesson of Robinson’s sad little incident, just as the lessons of Lawrence Taylor, Mike Tyson, O. J. Simpson and countless other star athletes-turned-police-blotter-entries aren’t found in their courtroom judgments. Whether Robinson is found guilty of the soliciting charge
(at game time, he was calling it a “misunderstanding” — although how many guys who are picked up for soliciting an undercover cop don’t call it a misunderstanding?) — what’s really important isn’t if he learns his lesson but if we learn ours.

And here is that lesson: We don’t know these guys. We never have, we never will. Writing features about them in newspapers, profiling them on ESPN, grabbing a sound bite for the radio or giving them an award for high moral character is still nothing more than stealing a piece of their costume.

They are in the entertainment business, and a basic law of the entertainment business is that there are two worlds, the onstage and the offstage.

Robinson may have simply gotten caught mixing one with the other.

Less than 24 hours later, the stadium filled. The music and fireworks went on. And Robinson, the man of “high moral character” who was out on bail, played the football game, as if hypocrisy were simply part of the sport, a yellow flag, a five-yard penalty.

Earlier in the week, Robinson insisted his Falcons get proper respect. He said, “This team ain’t no joke.”

No. Only you, Eugene.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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