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Book Looks At Tarnished Sports Stars

Sun., Oct. 5, 1997, midnight

When the Boston Red Sox released Wilfredo Cordero after the final game of the baseball season, he expressed his joy at being a free agent.

“I’m happy,” he said. “I get to go home to my family - me, my wife, the baby - and enjoy my life.”


The only problem is that police summoned to his home June 11 found his wife bruised and bleeding and Cordero threatening to kill her.

This was not so heartwarming. He was arrested on a number of charges including assault and battery and violating a restraining order. Trial is set for Oct. 20.

Cordero became a member of a growing fraternity - athletes charged with violence against women. They’re the subject of Jeff Benedict’s new book, “Public Heroes, Private Felons.” It examines how stars cheered on the field often turn into savages off it.

The condition borders on an epidemic with charges reported almost daily. Benedict wonders about what causes the flood of cases and what happens to the athletes after they are reported.

“By and large, they get off,” he said. “Look at the disposition of the cases. They’re very rarely prosecuted successfully.

Sentences are often minimal. The courts are hamstrung by plea bargains because of the difficulty getting the initial charges to stick.”

Benedict’s book, which grew out of research he conducted while on staff at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, details many well-known cases. He says the blame or this aberrant behavior needs to be shared, particularly at the collegiate level.

“It’s coaches who recruit players who are at risk,” he said. “They know from past behavior and experience what to expect. In fairness to the recruits, many are from less than perfect environments, exposed to violence and crime. If they want to offer them scholarships, that’s OK. But they have a duty to do more than just put them on the field. The message is, ‘As long as I’m good enough, I can come in and play.’

“It’s often inappropriate to offer scholarships to these players. They choose to bring them to campus and push them through the system for three or four years. Lawrence Phillips is the perfect example.”

Phillips is the St. Louis Rams’ running back recruited by Nebraska after a troubled childhood growing up in a group home in West Covina, Calif. The “at-risk ” signals were there from the start. In his third year in college, Phillips pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault and trespassing in the beating of his ex-girlfriend.

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne responded with a six-week suspension, then allowed him to return to the team in time for the national championship game, explaining that Phillips needed the structured environment of the team. The day after Nebraska won the championship, the coach recommended that Phillips turn pro and find somebody else’s structured environment.

“The problem was shoveled off to the Rams,” Benedict said. “Phillips got in trouble again and was arrested almost immediately” on drunken driving charges.

So who is to blame? Osborne? The Rams? The system?

Consider last week’s partial police blotter in sports.

Ohio State freshman wide receiver Ken-Yon Rambo was charged with drug abuse, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A day later, University of Miami freshman wide receiver Santana Moss was arrested following a fight at a bar and charged with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.

“Sports are big in America,” Benedict said. “Sometimes, priorities get out of balance. The moral compass, too exposed to the limelight, can go awry and ethics get pushed aside.”

That’s distressing stuff.

There are hopeful signs, though. Teams have cut problem players. And if they’re not cheered on the field, it will send a message the fans won’t tolerate it, either.

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