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Stain of accusations almost as bad as arrests


At least two pro athletes had a bad week last week.

They were central figures in incidents that occurred in the wee hours, leading to police investigations and undesirable headlines. The players entered the news cycle for off-the-field matters, rarely a positive development, and they can count on related questions indefinitely. Their pro resumes have new footnotes that demand attention amidst the sea of stats and other facts.

But there’s a huge difference in the cases of Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane and former San Francisco 49ers sackmaster Aldon Smith. Half the population doesn’t notice the distinction while the other half doesn’t care. It has nothing to do with the NHL versus the NFL and it’s not about one action versus another.

Police in Santa Clara, Calif., arrested Smith on Friday morning for a hit and run, DUI and vandalism. Police in western New York announced on Friday that Kane is being investigated for an alleged rape.

Actually, police didn’t mention the exact cause in the latter case. The statement referred to “an incident that allegedly occurred at the residence of NHL player Patrick Kane last weekend.”

But we already knew what it entailed. A day earlier, The Buffalo News cited two law enforcement sources in reporting that Kane “is the target of a rape investigation.” The paper said sources said a local woman said Kane sexually assaulted her.

That’s abhorrent if true, repugnant if false.

He might never be arrested, never face trail or never be convicted, but “Kane investigated for rape” is a bell that can’t be un-rung. The sound might fade into a fuzzy recollection over time, but it will always remain. You’ll remember that so-and-so was “involved” in a sexual assault case,” even if can’t recall exactly how it turned out.

Somewhere along our way to the Information Age, we gave up the ability – or the desire – to limit the harm caused by rumors, hearsay and unsubstantiated claims. In media’s effort to be first – and sources’ efforts to feel important – the standard has become “report now, amend later.”

One of the best examples happened nearly 20 years ago, when police announced they were investigating a claim that Dallas Cowboys stars Michael Irvin and Erik Williams were involved in raping a 23-year-old woman at gunpoint.

An investigator said charges could be filed prior to the 1997 playoff game against Carolina. “Everything she’s told us has checked out,” Lt. David Goelden[CQ] told Dallas TV station KXAS. “It’s just a matter of gathering up our evidence and putting a case together at this point.”

He should have waited. The story made front-page news and was featured on newscasts across the country, but it changed 10 days later. “We’ve determined conclusively that the allegations are not true, and that a sexual assault did not take place, police spokesman Ed Spencer told reporters. “We also determined that Michael Irvin was not present at any time.”

The woman was charged with filing a false police report, but it was too late. Nina Shahravan was sentenced to 90 days in jail but Irvin and Williams were sullied for life.

“Rerun it, rewrite it, reprint it, Irvin told reporters, many of whom had (justifiably-if-true) roasted him over the story. “Just like you did, with the same intensity you did. The same intensity. Don’t lose the intensity.”

The request is impossible. There’s no way to match the red-meat intensity of juicy reports when they break. Richard Jewell, the one-time suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing, found out the hard way before he died in 2007.

Some argue that in this day and age, an investigation is newsworthy and can’t be ignored. Folks are bound to ask questions when they see several plainclothes officers searching the grounds and inside a celebrity’s home. Besides, criminal complaints are serious matters and often available to the public. If reporters miss something, law enforcement sources can step in and point it out.

I suppose there’s no going back, no getting around this blurring of the line between accused and arrested.

Suspects should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and accusers should be presumed honest until proven deceitful, a problematic but necessary equation.

The stain will last longer on Kane if he’s cleared, but that’s part of being a star. Dealing with that cloud beats dealing with a conviction any day.

Even if they kind of feel similar right now.

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