One false move. That’s all you get now. One false move and they chop your head off, leave you hanging upside down in the spotlight. Too bad, see ya, thanks for joining us in The Public Life. A good man is without his job this morning. He might never coach again, all for a mistake that is made a thousand times every day all over this country. Gary Moeller’s crime was not getting drunk and making a fool of himself — heck, they’d have to fire half the football people in America for that.

His crime was getting caught in the spotlight, and having his story dissected like a high school lab rat.

Shame on them, shame on every one at Michigan who let this hurricane of publicity blow them away from what they owed a good employee of 24 years: a chance to redeem himself.

And shame on us, every one in this business who grabbed those tapes of Moeller swearing at police, cursing at his wife, begging for forgiveness, and threw them right into the airwaves and headlines. What purpose did that serve?

He never accused the police of harassment. He never denied being drunk. Yet we pasted him, lambasted him, then said how sorry we felt for him.

The American spotlight.

One false move.

“Doesn’t Moeller deserve a second chance?” someone asked Joe Roberson, the U-M athletic director, once he had announced Moeller’s “resignation” Thursday. It followed the coach’s recent arrest for disorderly conduct at a Southfield restaurant.

“Second chances are somewhat dependent on the circumstances that lost you your first chance,” Roberson said. “In my view, given what has happened, it would have been quite difficult for Gary to have been an effective leader of the team.”

Congratulations, Michigan. The law needed another week just to arraign Moeller; you have already sentenced him.

One false move.

The beast is growing

Now, it’s true, Michigan was within its rights to do what it did. Moeller’s contract clearly states that if he embarrasses the university in any way, it can terminate without pay. So agreeing to give him two and a half years’ worth of the remaining three years on his $130,000 per year contract is more than generous, at least financially.

But bailing out on him because his incident became national news is only making the Media Beast bigger by surrendering to it.

Roberson’s feeling was that, after the magnitude of this story, Moeller would have a hard time addressing future players about the dangers of bad habits. Roberson — and the school — felt that Moeller’s drunken curses and pushing a cop last Friday cost him his credibility in the homes of future recruits, especially when the mothers ask, “Will you take care of my son?”

Well. Maybe, Joe. Don’t be so quick to dismiss the healing power of time, and the short memory of the American public. We live in a country where the current mayor of Washington, D.C., was busted for drugs the first time he had that job. Teddy Kennedy is frequently parodied as a drunken windbag, yet is still one of the most powerful politicians in America. Here in Detroit, we have an admitted alcoholic anchorman back on TV — after yet another fall off the wagon — not only bringing us news, but shaping it.

And how many chances were college coaches from Jerry Tarkanian to Barry Switzer given before they finally were shown the door? More than one, I’ll tell you that.

Sure, the news explodes these days, but it also fades quickly. It is quite possible that a year from now, this whole Moeller thing would be small in the rearview mirror. And perhaps Moeller would even be that much smarter, a symbol of someone who learned from his mistakes.

If so, Michigan made a terrible and hasty decision Thursday. If not, Roberson and President Jim Duderstadt could always have addressed it later. Why not try it? Are they so afraid in Ann Arbor of falling a step behind in the race for football supremacy that they forget about compassion and loyalty?

Are they so blinded by one-way dignity that they can’t see the hypocrisy of

a sport that accepts millions of dollars from beer companies, yet tosses a coach after one drunken incident?

And it was one drunken incident. Let’s not forget that here. No one is suggesting that it wasn’t a terrible thing for a head coach to do, or that he shouldn’t have to pay a price — maybe go through a rehab or education program, even if he doesn’t have a huge problem, just to show good faith.

But the feeding frenzy over Moeller makes it feel like he committed 30 crimes, when he didn’t. One night. One incident. First offense. That’s it. Moeller has no history of alcohol problems, no history of arrests, no history of bad behavior in public. He didn’t kill anyone. Didn’t hurt anyone. Didn’t involve any of his players.

“I want to make it clear that my conduct last Friday is in no way indicative of an alcohol problem,” Moeller said in a prepared text read by Roberson. “It does not reflect on any family difficulties between my wife, Ann, or any other member of my family.

“I have left my job as head football coach, but I still have my family and dignity.”

What’s left of it, after we got done chewing on it.

One false move. He was drunk, after all

A word here about the “terrible” things Moeller said while intoxicated. How many good things have you heard from a drunken man’s mouth? Once you accept the fact that he was intoxicated — which he quickly admitted, even to the cops — you gain nothing from examining his statements. It’s gibberish. Anyone who has ever had too much liquor at a New Year’s Eve party can relate.

Would you have liked a tape on yourself then? Would you want a camera rolling in your bedroom when you and your spouse have a fight — and then see it on TV? This public gorging on Moeller’s embarrassment was disgusting and completely unnecessary. What kind of society have we become when police automatically tape their arrests — to protect themselves from lawsuits — then release the tapes to the news media because of a Freedom of Information

Act?

So many laws to protect our rights.

Then why does this feel so wrong?

And it is. Wrong. We all seem to know it. Yet no one seems able to do anything about it. Roberson is a good man, and he offered Moeller a good package, but he didn’t save him. He seemed to be feel he couldn’t. And the rest of us? We shake our heads and cluck our tongues and say, “Too bad he didn’t drink at home.”

Shame on them, shame on us. Let every university board member who’s never had too many martinis step forward. Let every provost and professor who’s never yelled something vicious at his mate step forward, too. Let every reporter, anchor and talk-show host, every would-be hero and wannabe public figure who never did anything wrong, never argued with a cop, never got a little too loud in a bar, never did a single thing he’d like to have back, come forward right now, raise your hand.

And mark your time. We are all under the same gun now. We all have to play by the same spotlight rules that just sank Moeller. No mercy. No patience. One false move, and everything you’ve done is washed away, you’re on the dead pile, food for the vultures.

Some world we live in, huh?

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