The Danger of Treating Athletes Like Gods

Surely you've heard by now that 14 current and former UCLA football players are in dutch with the law for allegedly using fake medical excuses to get handicapped placards so they could park close and park free on campus.

Yes? So?

It's not like they were snorting coke or beating up their girlfriends like players in the pro leagues, is it?

And look: These guys are under a lot of pressure--from the opposing teams, from coaches, from the alumni, from the fans. That can take a lot out of a guy; if a few premium parking spots let them husband a little extra energy for the gridiron, what's the beef?

And athletes with pro hopes aren't your average college students studying for careers with a 40-year life span--law, maybe, or engineering. Just how long is the average pro football career, anyway? A dozen years max? A mere dozen years of earning power? Those could be $10-million knees these athletes are getting around on, and you want them to wear them out on long, taxing walks from a parking garage?

If that hasn't persuaded you, let me add this: Jocks are notorious for dodging academic chores. If close-in parking encourages them to show up for class a little more often, we ought to be applauding!

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But seriously--if the foregoing sarcasm wasn't thick enough--using those blue and white placards while entertaining dreams of a Heisman Trophy is not only a Bad Thing, on the order of stealing pencils from the blind man, it is a Criminal Thing.

The office of Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn--who, by the way, is a Pepperdine man, not a USC Trojan, lest someone suspect there are other motives than professional ones here--has two misdemeanor counts against each of 13 players, and four against one more.

As crimes go, this was more brazen than brilliant. Doctor's forms, signed by nonexistent medicos, were bought for $20 or so, officials say. It was up to each buyer to fill in the ailment of choice and mail it off to the DMV.

Some claimed the afflictions that football players might get, like bad knees. One, no premed student, wrote that he was suffering from Bell's palsy.

Here I must muse upon who is the bigger doof--the athlete who chose that excuse or the DMV clerk who accepted it. Bell's palsy is a facial nerve ailment. I've had Bell's palsy; the left side of my face sagged like Quasimodo's, but my legs remained nimble as a springbok antelope's.

From the January day when a UCLA cop saw someone wheel into one of the campus' 551 handicapped spots and spring out in full vigor, it was only a matter of time before it happened: UCLA's football roster was compared to the DMV's blue-placard list, and it became clear that if there was a handicap, it was to be found between the left and right ears.

In 1997, when valet parkers at a Brentwood restaurant were caught slipping handicapped placards onto the dashboards of Mercedeses, Porsches and BMWs for the benefit of diners fleeing their tuna carpaccio lunches, Angelenos got more riled about that than about Kosovo and Rwanda combined.

Such conduct is like being tone-deaf to society's moral music, which is why the city attorney's phones are already a-jangle with tips about handicapped parking scams on other campuses.

Why, though, are we surprised?

When athletes are coddled and lionized, why should they think of themselves as anything less than privileged beings, operating apart from the rules of mortal men?

This sports-besotted nation has forgiven its pro athletes for doing far worse than stealing a parking spot from a cripple. Still, those men play in the National Badboys Assn. or the National Felons League, and still, whatever their offenses, they get big paychecks on Friday and big cheers on Sunday.

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Brian Williams is the deputy city attorney who will be in court July 28 when the athletes are to be arraigned.

The 14, Williams suspects, "probably didn't understand the magnitude. They saw it as, 'Look, I'm just trying to get some parking.' "

The Vehicle Code hangs jail time on each violation, but Williams would much rather they paid fines, spent time on probation and performed some "interesting community service they'll remember for the rest of their lives."

If ever there was an occasion for creative sentencing, this is it.

Williams' office may think they'd understand the nature of the transgression by spending a few weeks in convalescent homes or rehab centers, pushing wheelchairs.

Me, I'd prefer that they have to spend a few weeks occupying them.

Columnist Patt Morrison writes today in place of Al Martinez, who has the day off. Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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