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National Felons' League? Don't be so quick to judge

When athletes make the jump from college or high school to the professional ranks, their lives are bound to change. Million-dollar contracts replace part-time jobs. Agents replace parents as voices of reason. Young kids — just like you and me — suddenly find themselves cast into the spotlight with little idea of what to expect or how to act.

As professional athletes, these men and women are immediately placed on pedestals and often looked up to as role models within American society. They are success stories for all the world to see.

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When the pedestal begins to crumble, however, and success starts to turn sour, athletes can also quickly become public scapegoats.

Recent news out of the National Football League clearly proves this point.

Over the past few weeks, the newspapers have been filled with report after report of NFL players getting into trouble with the law. The laundry list of charges is both long and serious — ranging from disorderly conduct to burglary and murder. Those standing accused of the crimes include both role players and Pro-Bowl starters.

In case you missed the police blotter from the "National Felon's League," here are some of the highlights:

Ray Lewis (murder) — an all-pro linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, charged with the slaying of two individuals in a post-Super Bowl brawl in Atlanta.

Rae Carruth (murder) — a former wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, charged in the shooting of Cherica Adams — his girlfriend — and her unborn child.

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Cecil Collins (burglary) — a running back for the Miami Dolphins, charged with felony burglary after he allegedly broke into his neighbor's home.

Steve Muhammad (domestic battery) — a defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts, charged with the alleged beating of his wife, just days before she died from labor complications.

Matt O'Dwyer (assault and disorderly conduct) — a guard for the Cincinnati Bengals, charged with third-degree assault and two counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly inducing a brawl in a bar on Long Island, N.Y.

The list doesn't end there however. In fact, it gets much more interesting and hits much closer to home.

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Included among the NFL's newest criminal suspects is one of Princeton's very own — Keith Elias '94.

Arrested outside of a bar in Seaside Heights, N.J., early Monday morning with New York Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet, Elias was charged with both disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The Colt running back now awaits a Mar. 2 court date on the two charges.

Despite the serious nature of the charges against Elias, they nevertheless pale in comparison to those laid against the other NFL players.

What then, should we make of Elias' appearance on this dubious list?

First,we should acknowledge the fact that even Princeton kids are capable of breaking the law (see Lyle Menendez '92).

Second, we should understand that anyone is capable of making a poor decision at any time.

Third, we should realize that the public should not hold professional athletes — no matter how capable they may be — to any higher standards than we hold ourselves.

Just because athletes perform in the public eye, does not mean that we should hold them up as pinnacles of society.

Baseball players, basketball players and football players are simply average people with extraordinary physical skills. Why then, should we expect any more from them than we do from the average citizen?

Well, simply put, we shouldn't.

Society should ask no more of professional athletes than it does of all other individuals. It should not ask them to uphold any higher moral standard than the rest of the population.

The media spotlight unfortunately makes this nearly impossible. No matter how many athletes make positive contributions to society, there will always be room for one more story about an athlete gone bad.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to excuse the acts of murder, assault or disorderly conduct in any way, but I am trying to protect the athlete against what often turns out to be unfair scrutiny.

If an athlete commits a crime, don't go blaming his or her lifestyle or the nature of professional sports in general. Blame the individual, for responsibility travels no further.

Judge him as an athlete on the field. Judge him as a person off the field.

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