When Sports Becomes a Rule Unto Itself

“Actually, that does not apply to me.”

Memphis Coach John Calipari with Derrick Rose.

Plaxico Burress with his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, on the way to court.

This little mantra seems to be the root ethic for a lot of people these days. I am thinking of the cars (I’m not one to stereotype, you understand, but invariably they are late-model vans or sport-utility vehicles) parked in the no-standing zone outside the corner Starbucks in my town, as other drivers swerve around them. That sign? Actually, it does not apply to them.

This attitude surely permeates sports, and probably always has. All the blather that sports build character is certainly exposed by some of the solipsistic types around us. Oh, my goodness, where to begin?

Let’s start with the role models of Interstate 64 back in my old second home, Kentucky. In Lexington, there is John Calipari, who generally leaves teams smoldering in scandal. He did it in Massachusetts, and this time he has escaped unscathed to the riches and high demands of the University of Kentucky just as Memphis has been disqualified from its second-place finish in the 2008 Final Four.

Apparently, the best Memphis player, Derrick Rose, did not take the test that got him into higher education in the first place. The team’s accomplishment is nuked, but Calipari skips town unpenalized, leaving behind the universal big-time coaching code of the road: “Actually ...”

In Louisville, there is Rick Pitino (whom I have known and liked for a long time), who has now been exposed for having a quickie with a female stranger in a closed restaurant in 2003. Pitino has admitted the “indiscretion” but has also been linked to a $3,000 payment that she used for an abortion.

The university would like to think it has standards, but apparently it needs Pitino to fill an arena being built. Now its front man will be forever linked by snickering to the word “table” the way Bill Clinton is linked to the word “intern” and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina is linked to the Appalachian Trail. Pitino has always identified himself with loyalty — to religion, school, team, friends, family. “Actually ...”

Oh, yes, Kentucky meets Louisville on Jan. 2. Let’s call it the Actually Classic.

Then there is Plaxico Burress, a former Giants receiver who was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to charges of carrying a concealed pistol into a New York club last November. Some people think he received harsh treatment because he is a high-profile athlete who made the mistake of shooting himself in the leg in a crowded room while Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is running for a hitherto banned third term. (Actually, the mayor persuaded City Council members.) Bad luck for Plax. Just as in the Western movies, he got the hangin’ grand jury in Big Mike’s Town.

But look at it this way: there are certainly enough examples of celebrities who got a break from people at the scene or officials or juries or all of the above. And Burress is an idiot. He stuck a loaded pistol into his jeans for a night of dancing the gavotte in some nightclub, overlooking two rather important laws: the law of gravity for a weighty pistol tucked in a waistband and the New York law against carrying handguns, particularly unlicensed ones.

Somewhat appealing in his own sweet, naïve, pass-catching, Super Bowl-winning jock entitlement, Burress seemed to have learned only one thing in his entire life.

To his chagrin, this time, “Actually” did not work.

The two-year punishment for Burress is being compared with the 24 days Cleveland receiver Donte’ Stallworth served in jail and the one-year suspension the N.F.L. imposed on him after he killed a pedestrian while driving intoxicated near Miami Beach, Fla.

We’ll never know if Stallworth’s inebriation dulled his reaction to a pedestrian walking in front of his car on a causeway. It’s hard to compare Stallworth to Burress, or for that matter to Michael Vick, who spent nearly two years in prison for his part in the torturing and killing of dogs. Vick has the legal right to work for the Eagles; he may have even learned not to live by the evasive tactic he learned as a big-time football star: “Actually ...”

That same who-me? defense seems to be inculcated in the chlorinated mind of Michael Phelps, the holder of gold medals and world records but not much sense. Phelps, who escaped legal trouble this year after being photographed holding a marijuana pipe at a party, was involved more recently in an accident (that the police said was not his fault) in Maryland while driving with an expired Michigan license. His defense seems to be “Actually ...” The lad needs to bang the side of his head and knock the pool water loose.

Now, in New York, we have Gary Sheffield, the 40-year-old diminished slugger who on Thursday had the gall to demand a contract for next year. As if the Mets don’t have enough trouble. Only a few months ago, Sheffield seemed almost (and I say, almost) grateful to the Mets for rescuing him from the discard bin. Now he wants to stagger into another season, highly paid and semi-lame by athletic standards. He was hoping the hapless Mets organization would overlook all this. Old Shef does not operate by normal limits. His view of the world is encapsulated by one word, “Actually ...”

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