The question of Ruben Patterson's relative guilt we will leave to the courts. The question of his timing is open-and-shut: terrible.
If ever the University of Cincinnati basketball program needed some law-abiding citizens, it is now. Bearcat coach Bob Huggins has been busy battling the renegade image recently conveyed by Sports Illustrated, only to have Patterson open a whole new second front.
The junior forward was charged with aggravated burglary Thursday night following a complaint by a former girl friend. In the process, he has helped perpetuate UC's reputation as an outlaw school and provided more derisive material to its detractors.
''How does Bob Huggins get his players to stand for the national anthem?'' a Kentucky fan asked Friday. ''He gets someone in the front row to say, 'Will the defendant please rise?'''
Ruben Patterson is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the story that has emerged thus far is probably overblown at paragraph length. A romantic relationship ended badly, some possessions were in dispute, and the conflict escalated to an embarrassing end. From all accounts, it sounds like an episode from The Simpsons - Homer and Marge, that is, not O.J. and Nicole.
Yet because UC basketball is under unprecedented national scrutiny, the slightest detours from the straight and narrow have the impact of earthquakes. Ruben Patterson's arrest warrant led the local news Thursday night and made front-page news Friday morning.
''Whether you did something right or did something wrong, it's magnified because you're associated with the team,'' said Xavier Athletic Director Jeff Fogelson. ''All of these kids - athletes or not - they're going to have these little peccadillos that take place. That's part of growing up.
''I think what we (universities) don't do well enough is teach these kids that along with the accolades and the fame and the pictures in the paper, there's a responsibility that goes along with that that's very restrictive.''
This does not excuse criminal behavior - not by a long shot (which at UC is defined as anything beyond eight feet) - but athletes ought to understand that their transgressions will make news whether they are truly sinister or just silly.
UC athletes are particularly vulnerable on this point because the university declines to define what it won't tolerate.
When Art Long was granted a basketball scholarship after selling marijuana to a decoy cop, the UC administration effectively abandoned any pretense of standards for students and provided context for all the criticism that has followed. You might think Sports Illustrated's story was unfair - Huggins has called it ''elitist,'' and that seems apt - but you can't pretend it was completely unfounded.
Problems not only at UC
Not every academic institution can be as discerning as Duke. Not every college can attract athletes whose academic and police records are as impressive as their pivot moves. A Los Angeles Times study found 209 examples of college athletes or team personnel who were involved in police incidents in 1995. If UC is to compete nationally in college basketball, it has little choice but to recruit players who lack parts of ''the total package.''
Inevitably, permissive admission policies lead to some adverse publicity. This is a price UC has been willing to pay for decades, and it has allowed Huggins the latitude to build a team that has sold out the Shoemaker Center for the entire season.
Different institutions have different levels of tolerance. Idaho's board of education last year forbade coaches from recruiting athletes who had committed felonies and banned convicted felons from further participation in intercollegiate athletics.
On the other end of the moral spectrum is Long Island University, whose basketball team features the infamous Richie Parker. Parker is serving five years' probation after pleading guilty to first-degree sexual abuse of a former high school classmate.
Parker plays against Xavier on Tuesday night. Seats are still available.