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Hard Lessons for Santonio Holmes 

Athletes occupy a unique, uneasy, place in the public eye

When I woke to the news of Santonio Holmes' second arrest in as many months, my first thought was, "Does this guy think he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders?" My second thought was, "I guess I can stop wondering why the Steelers chose another wideout in the third round."

But upon further reflection — and in the still-murky aftermath of the Duke lacrosse media debacle — I have to admit to feeling like a jackass for rushing to judgment. In North Carolina, the players were tried in the media, the victim was raked over the coals, and there were disparate reports regarding DNA evidence or lack thereof. Everybody involved got screwed by a media too anxious to pronounce judgment. The facts were the last thing on anybody's mind.

Now that Holmes has been arrested for domestic violence, should we treat him with the same wit? If precedent is any indicator, we likely will.

Holmes finds himself in the strange no-man's land of sports celebrity. On the one hand, if found guilty of criminal charges, he'll probably get off with a slap on the wrist — or at least more leniency than the average Joe would receive. It is one of the benefits of celebrity, as everybody from Winona Ryder to Jamal Lewis knows. "Of course you may do your community service for shoplifting when it suits your filming schedule, Ms. Ryder." "Mr. Lewis, I shall schedule your brief incarceration for a time that won't interfere with the NFL season."

That deferential treatment certainly wouldn't happen for me. Or you. And that doesn't even factor in the celebrity fish that get away. (Not that I'm making reference to any other Chesapeake Bay area resident, mind you.)

But what Holmes is learning is that there is a dark side of celebrity, too, particularly for athletes. Jocks are presumed guilty the second 9-1-1 is dialed. At Duke, the assumption was that because scholarship lacrosse players were accused, they were most assuredly guilty. Three of those players currently face charges, but if we were to judge by the first broad-brush accounts, it was a team-wide or even campus-wide conspiracy. (And those three players who face charges? Still innocent until proven guilty. Just a gentle reminder.)

Holmes' first arrest for disorderly conduct, meanwhile, can probably be chalked up to being young and in the wrong place at the wrong time. It'd be a pretty forgivable misstep, even factoring in his fib to his mommy: More than 500 people were swept up in that net. Yet somehow he's the only one to blame.

No doubt that's because of his status as a top NFL draft pick. And no doubt if he catches touchdown passes, everyone will forgive and forget.

In the upside-down world of sports, athletes lose the presumption of innocence, while at the same time escaping the consequences of guilt. Even when convicted, the stain rarely lasts. If the camaraderie displayed on ESPN's "Countdown to Kick Off" is to be believed, Michael Irvin must be the most beloved retired NFL player ever.

Michael Irvin? The loudmouth who played for the Cryboys? With the multiple cocaine arrests? Yup, that self-same one.

At the end of the day, jocks face real recrimination for only one thing: letting down their teammates. Can they catch? Run? Throw? Hit? These are the only meaningful questions in a locker room. When you hear athletes talking about "character guys," they're talking about a different kind of character. They mean "character" in the sense that they put their bodies on the line for a merciless pounding week after week. And being tough enough to bear the physical abuse and mentally tough enough to never, ever quit.

If Santonio were my son, I'd counsel him that he's now crossed over from private citizen to celebrity and … and the purpose of a celebrity is to give people something to talk about. He'll be deemed guilty regardless of the facts — and treated lightly regardless of the transgression. Because in the end, all that matters is the buzz.

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