Too many balls

PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL is, like other major men's pro team sports, virtually a taxpayer-subsidized entity, with shiny new stadiums like Safeco Field sprouting up in almost every major league city. But baseball has a problem, and it's not John Rocker.

Rocker, you'll recall, is the Neanderthal Atlanta Braves pitcher who, in a national magazine interview, proclaimed his hatred for everyone not like him. He spoke words thought by millions of intolerant Americans—the folks George W. Bush pandered to when he spoke at Bob Jones University—and for that sin the baseball commissioner's office tried to come down heavily on him, with an enormous fine and suspension that was later overturned. Rocker remains a national pariah for his words.

But there was no fine or suspension, let alone national contempt, for the deeds of Pedro Astacio. He will be in the lineup as the ace opening day pitcher April 3 for the Colorado Rockies. Astacio, in case you missed the fine print in the sports page, recently withdrew (so as to avoid deportation to his native Dominican Republic) a guilty plea in criminal charges brought for assault against his wife last August. He continued to pitch, 24 hours after the incident, to the acclaim and marvel of young boys everywhere who are also absorbing lessons about how to treat women. And virtually nobody cares.

Astacio is hardly alone. An all-star lineup in every men's sport can be assembled from outsized athletes who've been accused of assaulting, battering, or raping women. In baseball, the extensive list includes Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Wil Cordero, Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Darryl Strawberry, Bobby Chouinard, Albert Belle, Rickey Henderson, former Mariner Vince Coleman, and current Mariners' closer Jose Mesa.

In football, Carolina Panther Rae Carruth stands accused of plotting the murder of his pregnant girlfriend; the other prominent NFL player now charged with murder, Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis, was accused of punching his pregnant girlfriend while at the University of Miami in 1995. But there's also, among other accusees, Jake Plummer, Lawrence Phillips, Dave Meggett, Randy Moss, former Seahawks Chris Warren, Warren Moon, and Lamar Smith, and longtime Seahawk star Cortez Kennedy. Former Seahawk owner Ken Behring was named in a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault and calling him a "sexual predator." And then there was O.J., a repeat batterer who went on to additional fame and a TV and movie career before the Trial of the Century.

Let's not forget basketball. Current Sonic starter Ruben Patterson, while at the University of Cincinnati, was absolved by a Hamilton County grand jury of felony aggravated burglary after an incident in which he allegedly broke into a former girlfriend's apartment, hit her, threw her to the ground, shoved her into a wall, and stole a purse. Former Sonics Dale Ellis, Dennis Johnson, Olden Polynice, David Wingate, Benoit Benjamin, and Dontonio Wingate have all had incidents. So have past and present stars like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Anthony Peeler, Rod Strickland, Derrick Coleman, Isaiah Rider, Chris Webber, Anthony Mason, Juwan Howard, Robert Parish, Jalen Rose, Cliff Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Nick Van Exel, and Rasheed Wallace. Among others. These athletes are the exception, not the rule, but they are not nearly enough of an exception.

Where is the outcry? Sports leagues have stringent prohibitions on illicit drug use, but it's open season on women. A number of studies show the incidence of sexual violence among pro and collegiate male athletes is far, far above societal averages. They're young, rich, pampered, aggressive, idolized, feel they can get away with anything, often can, and do. And all too often they hate women—the ultimate insult is to "play like a woman." Rarely are incidents prosecuted, still more rarely is jail time spent. Media is complicit, treating such outbursts not as contemptible violence but as off-field distractions, tragic footnotes to otherwise stellar seasons.

Big league sports have become a huge business as well as a heavily subsidized national pastime. We expect the best from these athletes, because our children—of all ages—look up to them so much. When the Pedro Astacios among them abuse women with virtual impunity, it's a dangerous, and outrageous, message. Happy Opening Day.

Sean Elliott's Miracle

And then sports are occasionally redeemed by moments that are utterly transcendent. Such a moment came in San Antonio March 14, when Sean Elliott of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team checked back onto the court seven months after receiving a kidney transplant—the first, and probably only, athlete ever to recover from a transplant to play again in his pro sport.

Not years. Seven months. It's an accomplishment somewhere beyond amazing. Kidneys are the safest and least dangerous of organ transplants; docs have been doing them for 50 years now. But they're still a very big deal to go through.

I'm a former athlete, and my conditioning undoubtedly helped save my life when I got sick. Five years ago, I had a kidney and pancreas transplant, somewhat more dangerous and complex than a kidney alone. Both literally and inspirationally, Elliott's example could save lives among seriously ill people facing life-threatening transplants, people unsure as to whether they will have the ability to lead a quality life after surgery. In my own small, humble way, I hope I also provide a positive example of that. Elliott has returned to something 99.99 percent of the population can only dream of—to perform at the most elite physical-conditioning level imaginable, in pro basketball.

Sean scored two points in 12 minutes in his first game back. I stand in awe.

 
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