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Sports

Will today’s athletes ever learn?

May 29, 2010

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I don’t romanticize the way it used to be in sports as entirely the good old days. Paul Hornung bet on football. Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic and womanizer. I can only imagine the number of athletes whose police run-ins were hushed up when the media were still a cozy ally — before ESPN, TMZ.com, YouTube, Twitter and the rest made increasingly instant fodder of every blemish.

Human nature surely hasn’t changed much across time. Stars had egos, felt entitlement and succumbed to dark urges, even when we were watching in black and white and blind to the gray. Contracts now have a couple more commas, but athletes always have been wealthy relative to fans, and with all the temptations money can buy.

I don’t know if today’s athletes misbehave or attract cops that much more than their forebears, or if it only seems that way because the spotlight is so much broader and more intense, so much more able to singe and scar.

That spotlight has become more like a searchlight.

There are no shadows left, athletes. No place to hide.

Don’t the Miami Dolphins know it.

The modern sports cocktail of equal parts irresponsible player and inescapable spotlight has dumped an image problem on our flagship franchise.

Young defensive end Phillip Merling — arrested early Thursday on an aggravated battery charge in a domestic-violence incident involving his pregnant girlfriend — is the fourth Dolphin arrested since February.

The DUI arrests of Will Allen and Ronnie Brown and Tony McDaniel’s arrest for domestic battery preceded this latest embarrassment.

What amazes is that the ever-certain glare of notoriety — the idea no misstep goes unseen anymore — has not noticeably changed athlete comportment for the better.

The Phillip Merling of the 1950s likely could have struck his pregnant girlfriend undetected, unpunished. What stuns you into incredulity is that the Merling of 2010 was dumb enough to think he could do the same, or simply didn’t care. Beyond the turpitude in such a crime, was even a sliver of thought given to football consequences?

Here we have a third-year pro who has hardly established himself; that’s why Miami spent a No. 1 draft pick on a player, Jared Odrick, who fills the same role.

Now, the player who should be fighting for his career by doing all the right things has not only shamed his team and angered his coach but also drawn the eye and ire of The Suspendin’ Sheriff, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Dear Phillip: maybe you didn’t get the memo on your league’s personal-conduct policy. (Not that anyone should need extra incentive to not hit a pregnant woman.)

The misdeeds of athletes haven’t changed over the years as much as the fact that — now — there is an added element of stupidity or plain gall in these athletes thinking they can get away with the misdeed.

Did you think that dogfighting operation would remain your little secret, Michael Vick? How about you, Tiger? Did you believe all of those women were of such high moral character as to never betray your betrayal? Did you never care, Ben Roethlisberger, that all those cellphone cameras kept catching you drunk with college girls?

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