It would be nice to think Dennis Rodman is getting what he deserved, but it would also be naive.
The National Basketball Association has levied a $25,000 fine and a minimum 11-game suspension against the Chicago Bulls' reprobate rebounder. Commissioner David Stern has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for kicking cameramen in the groin.
Pending an appeal by the NBA Players Association, Rodman could lose an estimated $1 million in salary and incentive bonuses over this incident, to say nothing of the financial damages to which the aggrieved Eugene Amos may be entitled. Rodman has also been ordered to undergo counseling. On the surface, the punishment would seem to fit the crime.
''Until Dennis can provide meaningful assurances that he will conform his conduct on the playing court to acceptable standards - including not placing others at physical risk - his suspension will continue,'' Stern said.
Stern was obliged to take a stand here for the sake of the NBA's image and the safety of courtside cameramen. Yet you have to suspect that this suspension serves no one's purposes as well as it does Dennis Rodman's.
Whatever costs Rodman may incur from this ugly episode will probably be balanced by its publicity value for his best-selling autobiography, his two forthcoming book projects, his MTV series, his spring film release and his ongoing endorsement deals.
Headlines mean money
With so many projects to promote, Rodman's sins have a powerful synergy about them. They make headlines and highlight shows and, as a consequence, cash registers ring.
''He will sign an entertainment contract that will be so staggering after this that we shouldn't worry about him,'' said David Burns, of Burns Sports Celebrity Services. ''He'll get hotter and hotter.''
Rodman is innately incendiary, and therefore magic along Madison Avenue. Once upon a time, the savants of advertising sought celebrities who could lend cachet to their products. Now, the emphasis is on the outrageous.
The cross-dressing sports star has been a commercial hit since Joe Namath first appeared in panty hose, but Rodman has pushed the envelope so far it should require additional postage. Much as parents might be repelled by the idea of a basketball drag queen, the youth of America are enamored of Rodman.
Earlier this month, when the Sportsmart chain disclosed its best-selling uniform jerseys, Rodman's red and black Bulls shirts ranked third and fourth behind similar models of Michael Jordan's, and ahead of every other athlete on the planet. People magazine included Rodman among its ''25 most intriguing people'' of 1996.
Rodman may have missed out on the chance to father Madonna's child - ''Borderline psychotic personality,'' she decided. ''I couldn't get away from him fast enough.'' - but he successfully staged his own solo wedding to coincide with a book signing. His apparent absence of inhibition and his unerring instinct for media manipulation have been rivaled recently only by Madonna and the House of Windsor.
Rodman's ability to draw attention appeals to many companies that are not constrained by concerns about dignity. David Burns was aware of at least 10 companies with which Rodman already has endorsement deals, including such corporate heavyweights as Kodak, McDonald's, Nike and Pizza Hut. And, of course, Victoria's Secret.
''To me, he's a revolution in advertising,'' Burns said. ''Advertisers have started being brave. Whatever attracts attention to their product, they're going to him. I think the public is more tolerant, and the conservatives that object to it can't do anything about it.''
Rodman places us in an exasperating quandary. To ignore him is to encourage him. To react to him is to enrich him. To punish him appropriately would require powers David Stern does not have at his disposal.
Like all great rebounders, Dennis Rodman has a knack for positioning. Whatever the NBA does plays right into his hands.