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COLUMN ONE : From Box Scores to the Police Blotter : 1995 was a rough year for athletes and the law. A host of high-profile cases helped link sports and crime in the public's mind.

December 27, 1995|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The late Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once said that he read the sports section first because it records man's accomplishments, while the front page reveals nothing but his failures.

But no section of the newspaper is safe anymore.

In a year in which the front page has been inundated with stories about a former football superstar accused of double murder, the sports pages have been barraged by stories about athletes and crime. A Times survey of 1995 court documents and newspaper and wire-service reports found 252 incidents involving active American or Canadian sports figures and the criminal justice system. These cases involved 345 athletes or team employees.

While there is insufficient data to determine if athlete-related crime has risen, experts say, there is no denying that--especially this year--sports and crime are increasingly intertwined in the public's mind. Though criminal cases involve a mere fraction of people in the sports world, they have included some of its biggest names.

O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder in the fall. But the ordeal of the trial and the horror of the crimes left their mark. So have other high-profile cases. Among them:

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon and World Series championship manager Bobby Cox of Atlanta were charged with spousal battery. Moon faces trial; Cox's charges were dismissed and he was ordered to get counseling.

Among legal woes plaguing top-ranked University of Nebraska, running back Lawrence Phillips, once a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, was charged with assault after attacking a former girlfriend. He was sentenced to one year's probation, restitution and counseling.

Ex-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was released from prison after serving three years for rape. Former Ram Darryl Henley is in jail awaiting a new trial on drug charges. And then-University of Michigan football coach Gary Moeller was arrested after a drunken incident in a restaurant. He pleaded no contest and paid $409 in fines. He has since resigned.

The profile of sports and crime also has been raised, experts say, by the increased reporting of incidents--both by the alleged victims and by a more aggressive media.

Violence against women--including rape--was the most frequent criminal accusation made against athletes in the Times survey. Police say changes in society's view of domestic violence are helping them make more arrests--of athletes and others.

Studies show an increase in athlete-related complaints in other areas as well.

"You have [more] athletes arrested for what I consider serious crimes . . . particularly against women," said state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. "No doubt [the situation] is worse now than ever before."

Some experts say that the violence in some sports contributes to criminal behavior off the field. In the Times survey, 209 of the 345 people involved in crime-related incidents played football, one of the most violent games.

Others say that crime has risen along with the rise in the legitimate money available in sports, not only in the pro ranks but in high-stakes college programs. They claim that the big money and privileged treatment given athletes encourage a strong sense of entitlement.

"I still cringe at some of the stuff you hear about. I am constantly talking with our guys [players], trying to get them to understand [how bad this behavior is]," said outfielder Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres. "Some will listen and with others you are just spinning your wheels. The bottom line is that just because you are good at baseball or any other sport, doesn't mean you are above the law. For some of these guys it just doesn't sink in."

What many in society have realized is that athletes no longer can be counted on as role models. To some, this is a troubling turnaround. To others, the hero idea was a myth to begin with.

"We want to think that these athletes are heroes," said Todd Crosset, assistant professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts. "But in some ways, we don't. Then we can yell at them and get into discussions about how there are no heroes anymore.'

More Aggressive Media

Since their unspoken pact to keep lives private ended in the early 1970s, athletes' relationship with sportswriters has crumbled--along with the pedestals on which the media helped place them.

For decades, sportswriters had reported only action on the playing field. Life outside the lines was virtually ignored.

Ty Cobb said he once left a mugger for dead after a fierce struggle, and it was kept quiet by reporters for years. Babe Ruth, known as a carouser, once was chased through a train by a woman wielding a knife, but the reporter who saw it didn't tell the story until he was on his deathbed.

The rise of sports television coverage changed the way reporters worked. No longer was it enough to cover games from press boxes. Reporters had to find out why a player arrived at the clubhouse with a black eye--because the camera would show it.

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