Tyson could teach them 'what not to do'

Associated Press

The truest thing any athlete ever said about being a role model was uttered by the worst role model ever.

Keep that in mind when the "he said, he said" dispute between Roger Clemens and his former personal trainer unfolds in Congress next week. It might help you decide whom to believe.

Mike Tyson's tailspin was just a twirl from hitting rock bottom in the middle of June 2002. He was standing in the ballroom of a Tunica, Miss., casino, shilling for the last big prizefight of his life, against Lennox Lewis three days later in nearby Memphis.

Just about every penny of Tyson's purse had already been pledged to the IRS or one of his ex-wives. But as a drawing card, he was still irresistible. A busload of school kids and radio-contest winners were on hand as a backdrop. They took turns yelling questions.

"Mike, are you a role model?"

Tyson didn't think long or hard.

"I could teach you what not to do," he said, smiling broadly.

So could we all.

Few of us ever do so on a grand stage, however, because even fewer ever climb that high. Yet all too often, some of those who do forget an essential lesson. It used to be called a tragic flaw. Whatever outsized desire got them there -- ambition, arrogance, an insatiable appetite, the need for approval -- is the same one that lands them in trouble. This week, there seemed to be a cluster.

In Nevada, a high school senior staged an elaborate recruiting ruse because he wanted to play Division I football so badly he risked being exposed in front of millions rather than face the truth all alone.

In the Dominican Republic, a two-year-old video showed two already famous athletes foolishly lending some glamour to a cockfight. Mets pitching star Pedro Martinez and former great Juan Marichal were seen on the YouTube video serving as "soltadores" -- honorary cornermen -- in their nation's biggest cockfighting venue. Then they watched two birds fight to the death for sheer entertainment. It's hardly sport, even if it's legal, and never a good idea for a photo-op.

Then there's the ever-deepening Clemens saga. Just when it appeared the dispute couldn't get any more sordid, attorneys for Brian McNamee, his former trainer, let slip word that gauze pads and syringes they said had Clemens' blood was turned over to an IRS special agent last month.

"We believe that this is significant corroboration," McNamee's lead attorney, Earl Ward, said the day before his client dropped by Congress to give a sworn deposition.

Clemens lawyer Rusty Hardin laughed at that characterization Thursday, even as his client went door-to-door along those same halls, personally delivering the same message to a select group of lawmakers.

"McNamee really did us a great favor yesterday because it truly revealed what he's out to do -- and that's to destroy Roger," Hardin added.

Exactly how Hardin built a lucrative law practice is beyond me, since he's apparently the same guy who called a news conference to defend Clemens and then played a secretly recorded phone conversation in which Clemens bullies a desperate McNamee over and over, but never gets him to change his story. In my mind, that's the second most-damning piece of evidence against Clemens, ranking just ahead of the Mitchell Report and just behind whatever evidence that McNamee, a former cop, saved from all those years ago and turned over to the feds last month.

Hardin is probably right about this much: Whatever McNamee has probably won't rise to the level of admissible evidence in a real court. There are chain-of-custody issues, McNamee's timing is suspicious and the fact he kept those items so long casts doubts on his motivation in the first place.

But while the answers Clemens and McNamee give under oath and before the TV cameras could have legal implications, the real venue will be the court of public opinion. After speaking to Clemens on Thursday, Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings said that court might ultimately be the more important one, though, precisely because it is public.

"While he asked for the meeting, I wanted to make sure that when all the dust settles, that he fully understood that baseball players -- whether they want to be or not -- are role models and that children are looking at them."

On that telling day eight years ago, right after Tyson stopped smiling, someone in the crowd asked a follow-up question.

"Mike, do you feel pressure to be a role model?"

This time, Tyson paused. It had taken him a lifetime to relearn something he knew as a hungry kid stealing purses in Brooklyn: If you want something bad enough, you do what you have to, not always what you should.

"You don't think I want to do those Wheaties commercials? You don't think I want those endorsement deals? But it's not in me to say 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' It is just not in me."

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