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Madden: Bettis' woes could distract Steelers

Saturday, September 07, 2002

With Jerome Bettis accused of sexual assault, the Steelers face something they certainly don't need as they begin a season filled with so much promise: An unnecessary distraction.

Forgive me if I take a Greensburg woman's personal tragedy (be it real or perceived) and analyze its relevance to football, but this is the sports page. By being involved in an unseemly situation, Bettis has opened himself up to countless catcalls from opposing fans (and Steelers fans, too, if he performs poorly). Can't wait for the first "pulled groin" joke. The situation will be discussed endlessly on talk shows.

I don't presume to judge Bettis' guilt or innocence, although this seems like a "he said, she said" situation with no witnesses, and that tends to favor the accused. But even when you beat the rap in a sex case, everyone remembers that you were involved with something sleazy.

I can't fault Bettis for picking up women. He's a young, single guy. As for doing so during training camp, I hope no one expects all of the Steelers to put sex on hold until after the Super Bowl. That's draconian, he wrote, sending you scurrying for a dictionary.

There's one thing I do know: If I ever feel the need to commit a crime, I'm doing it in Greensburg.

Bettis is accused of sexually assaulting the woman Aug. 21. The woman filed a report with police that same night. The Greensburg police didn't get around to questioning Bettis until two days ago, and only did so then because the Post-Gazette came nosing around.

It's not like Bettis is hard to find. He's been at the Steelers' South Side practice complex the past two weeks. The Greensburg police clearly tried to give Bettis the celebrity exemption, perhaps dragging their feet in the hope the alleged victim would drop her complaint.

The Greensburg police should have disguised themselves as members of the sports media and walked around with microphones, cameras, tape recorders and notebooks. They wouldn't have needed to look for Bettis. He would have looked for them. He has an addiction to attention.

Bettis is, by all accounts, a very nice guy. But we shouldn't use that self-evident truth to assume Bettis' innocence or to assume that he's totally incapable of doing anything bad.

When Al Martin played for the Pirates, he was widely hailed as the most affable human being to set foot in a big-league clubhouse. Turns out he was a bigamist who told bald-faced lies about a fictional college football career.

That doesn't mean Bettis is guilty of being a bad human being, much less guilty of any crime.

But it does mean that we don't really know what pro athletes are like. You can't judge a man by his quotes in the paper or by his sound bites on radio and TV. And we, as sports (cough) journalists, can't judge an athlete by the fleeting few moments he/she deigns to spend with us.

I would guess this whole incident likely will blow over. No charges have been filed, and a case without a witness is hard to prosecute. But the discussion and corresponding distraction will outlive the legal matter. Pittsburgh loves hot rumor much more than cold, hard facts.

It will be interesting to see Bettis' reaction if the fans give him a hard time. (Memo to Jerome: 100 yards against New England guarantees that this will not happen.)

Don't assume that Steeler Nation could never turn on nice guy Jerome. A portion of the citizenry turned on Penguins savior Mario Lemieux after he "chose Canada over Picksburgh" last winter. If the yinzers can fabricate a flaw about the city's greatest athlete, anyone is fair game.

See what happens if Bettis has a few bad games and the Steelers start losing. Not only will he be vilified for being washed up, but each criticism will be footnoted by a leering, sneering sex reference.

Bettis strikes me as being incredibly sensitive and thin-skinned. That was evident when he recently bemoaned all the bashing he feels he has taken over his career.

After years of incredibly effective sucking up, Bettis has wangled himself a lifetime free pass from most local ink-stained wretches and microphone jockeys. To wit, the Steelers' running attack struggled mightily in the preseason with Bettis performing at the lowest statistical level of any back.

Yet no one -- outside of your favorite talk-show host -- dared to speculate that Bettis could be part of the problem. The line got blamed, the vanilla offense got blamed, Bettis not playing the entire game so he could wear down the other team got blamed, but he wasn't even a suspect.

Yet Bettis still gripes. Imagine his attitude if he really does start to get criticism -- fair or otherwise -- in this town.

I'm predicting the best-case scenario. The Steelers will kill New England, and Bettis will have a good game, allowing teammates to pontificate at length about what a great guy Jerome is and allowing fans to eat their Jerome Bettis "The Bus" Giant Eagle helmet cakes with smug satisfaction.

After all, distractions aren't really distractions unless you lose.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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