I noticed at the Lakers/Magic game a few weeks back that a lot of kids were sporting a Lakers No. 8 replica jersey. You know, Kobe Bryant? The guy who had to admit to the world that he cheated on his wife when he faced rape charges? Parents, the last-stop role models for their spawn, are shelling out hundreds of dollars to encourage their kids to support and promote grown men who break the law, cheat on their wives and don't give a damn about setting a good example. Professional sports have always had their share of miscreants, but in the glorious yet archaic pre-Internet world it was easier to keep things out of the public eye. Not so much anymore.

Ron Artest made a name for himself as a defensive specialist with the Indiana Pacers. Not long after, he made a jackass of himself by smashing a reporter's $30,000 video camera after a loss. Then he got thrown out of a few games for cheap-shot punches, and pretty soon he more closely resembled Dennis Rodman than Michael Jordan. He made a strong showing of keeping his shit together toward the end of last season, and was named the NBA's defensive player of the year. When his team didn't make it to the conference finals, instead of spending the summer working on his conditioning, Ron started a record label, began managing R&B group Allure (I think they have that one song, "We're a Poor Man's TLC") and recorded a rap album.

Just when I thought Artest couldn't get any Artestier, I was blown away by his latest venture into the WWE. After a heated on-court confrontation with Big Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons, Artest went into the stands after a fan he thought had thrown a cup at him. In a classic Ron Artest move, he pushed aside the fan who had apparently heaved the cup and proceeded to deliver a beatdown to a different Pistons fan. It would be an understatement to say that all hell broke loose, with Indiana Pacers players throwing haymakers at Detroit fans. When the dust cleared, NBA Commissioner David Stern handed down a historic punishment: Ron Artest is suspended for the rest of the 2004-2005 NBA season.

It sucks that there are "fans" out there who get off on taunting and hurling more than insults at pro athletes. However, the millions of dollars an athlete earns for playing his or her sport requires some thick skin. Nobody wins when the public can't turn on a television without seeing several athletes in the stands at an NBA game, flailing their fists at people who paid to watch them play.


Imagine knowing that one of your current teammates feels mistreated by ownership and management, and he's the guy passing you the ball. Latrell Sprewell supposedly came to basketball's Minnesota Timberwolves to help Kevin Garnett get out of the first round of the playoffs, something KG had failed to do for seven years in a row. Sprewell had overcome a public relations nightmare of his own: His former coach, P.J. Carlesimo, had tried to injure Spree's hands by ramming his throat against them. For some reason, people made Latrell the scapegoat for choking his coach … go figure. After this, he kept his nose clean and last year helped Garnett reach within a finger's length of the NBA finals.

Then, the 2004-2005 NBA season begins. Poor Latrell, who has to subsist on a yearly income of $14.6 million until his contract extension is negotiated, questions his own motivation for helping the Timberwolves win a championship. Spree is quoted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Why would I want to help them win a title? They're not doing anything for me. I've got a lot at risk here. I've got my family to feed." What's your family eating that the POINT FRIGGING SIX in your yearly income won't cover? Maybe it's time to get the baby off of foie gras and onto some Enfamil, Latrell. The audacity it takes someone to make a statement like that rings in my ears, and only serves to amplify the disdain that I've been feeling for most athletes lately.

Then, along came Johnny. Recently I was lucky enough to have lunch with Johnny Damon of the World Champion (!) Boston Red Sox, and then interview him on my radio show that night. A bunch of Damon's high school chums showed up at lunch, and to watch the comfortable grace and ease with which he balanced genuine conversation while obliging multiple autograph requests was exhilarating. Speaking to Johnny Damon, one gets the impression that this is a guy who fully realizes and appreciates what it took to get him to where he is. Mayor Buddy Dyer may have ruffled a few feathers in the veterans community by proclaiming they now shared Veterans Day with Johnny Damon Day, but it's somehow appropriate because of Damon's work ethic, his appreciation for his fans and his humility.

A ratio of two scumbags to one stand-up guy doesn't paint an attractive picture of the future of professional sports, so here are some seemingly good guys that will make you feel a little better: Orlando's Grant Hill, Minnesota Vikings (and former UCF) quarterback Daunte Culpepper and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (if you can tolerate an F-bomb or two). Be careful with the praise, though. If you read the sports pages, you'll find out a supposed Olympic hero got busted for an underage DUI and the best wide receiver in the game of football wants everyone to know he thinks his former quarterback is "gay."

Come to think of it, there really are a lot more turds than there are pieces of Godiva here. Maybe it's time to make a drastic shift and encourage kids to idolize their parents rather than athletes? Oh, right. That would require parents to have a Jordan-like determination to be role models, and we all know that ain't happening anytime soon.

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