David Ramsey: Athletes, like Von Miller, ultimately judged on playing field

July 25, 2013 Updated: July 25, 2013 at 7:35 pm
photo - Broncos linebacker Von Miller takes the practice field under the watchful eye of the media. The Denver Broncos took to the field for the first day of training camp at Dove Valley on Thursday, July 25, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)
Broncos linebacker Von Miller takes the practice field under the watchful eye of the media. The Denver Broncos took to the field for the first day of training camp at Dove Valley on Thursday, July 25, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette) 

When the Von Miller news broke, a tidal wave of shock swept across Colorado. The Broncos' most fearsome defender had defied the NFL's drug policy, earned a four-game suspension and, it seemed, angered forevermore 85 percent of Front Range residents.

Have no fear, Von. Or, maybe, have little fear.

If Miller returns after a probable four-game suspension and is the Von of old, he will quickly be forgiven. If quarterbacks drop in the pocket and Von dances and the Broncos win, few will care about his embrace of Colorado's Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana. I realize Miller has said this is all a misunderstanding. I also realize this is often what athletes say in time of crisis.

We don't look to athletes for moral examples. We don't expect them to set an example for our children or grandchildren. At least the wise among us don't have these expectations.

We expect our athletes to perform on the field, and we overlook most transgressions - not all, but most - if they deliver touchdowns and sacks and home runs and goals and dunks and assists.

Just look at Kobe Bryant. A few years ago, he was despised and rejected after a sexual episode gone horrendously bad in Eagle, near Vail. Today he's one of the NBA's grand old men, respected for his vicious competitiveness. He's booed in Denver, and will be until he retires, but he says that's because of all the times he eliminated the Nuggets from the playoffs.

I think he's accurate in his assessment.

Or look at Ray Lewis. A few years ago, he was reviled for his still mysterious role in a murder. At best, he declined full honesty when questioned by police. At worst? Let's not even go there.

After the Super Bowl in February, Lewis walked into the sunset as a football hero. His mistakes had not been forgotten, but he had been forgiven by the vast majority of an NFL-loving nation.

It took me a long time to become this accepting of the misadventures of our sports greats. I grew up reading books, many sold at school, about the matchless moral attributes of my heroes. Mickey Mantle was a wonderful slugger and a family man straight out of central casting.

Or so the tale went. Not so long ago, sports writers indulged in creating myths, largely because creative fiction was what their reading public wanted.

My sports hero in high school was David Thompson, who is - with the possible exception of John Elway - the most gifted athlete ever to compete for a Colorado sports team. He could fly. He played a stalking brand of defense. He competed with a raging sense of purpose. He was destined to become one of the top 10 players to ever dribble on our planet.

Cocaine seized him and drained him and chased him out of the NBA far too soon. When you talk about the most troubling what-if stories in sports, Thompson belongs at the top of the list beside the doomed and foolish Lenny Bias and the oft-injured Pete Reiser and the dead-far-too-soon Ernie Davis.

In 2004, Thompson returned to Colorado on a book tour, and I took my sons to meet him in the basement of a book store. Thompson spoke to a crowd of only a dozen. He was 50, but told us, with a trace of pride, he still dunked during noon-time pickup games at the downtown YMCA in Charlotte, N.C.

After his talk, Thompson chatted for several minutes with my sons. He was kind, humble, a gentleman. I didn't tell my boys about the cocaine or the alcoholism or the tumble down the stairs at a New York City nightclub that ended Thompson's career.

No, I told them about all those astounding flights to the rim at the late, great McNichols Arena near downtown Denver. I told them about all the wins and the smiles.

Von Miller, like David Thompson, is not a moral titan. He's a physical titan. That's how he earns his paycheck. That's why we cheer for him. And if Von returns to being Von on the field, we will rapidly forgive.


Twitter: @davidramz

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