DENVER • Consider this old headline and think about your reaction when it happened:
Denver star Carmelo Anthony charged with DUI.
Remember when Melo messed up? Fans were angry, cracked jokes, stereotyped the Nuggets star as just another out-of-control millionaire athlete.
Really, that’s about how it went.
Fast forward to a recent headline: Denver star Todd Helton charged with DUI.
This is the reponse we have witnessed, both from media who know Helton and from Rockies fans that adore their first basemen:
Todd Helton? No way. How disappointing! But, you know, everyone makes mistakes. And did you read his apology? Good for him for accepting responsibility.
“I hold myself to a high standard and take my responsibility as a public figure very seriously,” Helton said in a statement.
This unfortunate ordeal should be a lesson to every professional athlete: Your reputation precedes you. Work tirelessly to make it a good one.
If your reputation is one of a role model, the public is quick to forgive.
If not, watch the swinging door on the way out.
I use Melo as an example simply because he is the perfect example. Our state’s finest professional athlete since John Elway was never truly embraced and constantly scrutinized, all the way up until the dark day he was shipped to New York.
Why is that?
Perception is everything, and the public already had shaped its perception of him.
Same for Helton.
The five-time All-Star has earned a reputation of community goodwill, of giving back to the same fans that pay serious cash to watch him smash a baseball around Coors Field.
Anthony’s reputation outside Pepsi Center was not as squeaky clean. When Melo messed up, the Nuggets star was tossed through a public spin cycle.
I remember, quite clearly, the reaction when Anthony tested the law. The response was cold and unforgiving. In the court of public opinion, Anthony was condemned quicker than you can say, “Western Conference finalists.”
And Helton has been forgiven quicker than you can say, “Rocktober.”
We are smart enough to agree what Helton did is dumb, deadly, dangerous. He immediately came out and said as much.
So this is not meant to judge his actions or bury Helton’s name under a cloud of shame. Fact is, if sports were filled with more Todd Heltons, our sports world is better.
The point is this: An athlete’s reputation is defined as much by his actions off the court as how many points or RBIs he scores on it. Their reputation doesn’t necessarily affect jersey sales, but it certainly affects whether we keep that jersey after he breaks the rules.
Are we operating under a double standard?
But it’s also true: In a sports world where perception is more powerful than reality, reputation is everything.