Disgruntled Bengals just part of trend

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tony McGee has reached his pique. The Cincinnati Bengals' tight end has caught just five passes in three games, and he thinks himself slighted. He believes there is more to his game than mere blocking, and he is absolutely right.

If you put the ball in Tony McGee's hands, he's going to catch it at least two-thirds of the time.

Garrison Hearst is seething. He longs to be a featured running back but finds himself in a fallback position. The Bengals want him around in case of complications with Ki-Jana Carter, but Hearst is looking for a somewhat grander gig.

Something like the one he had in Phoenix before he was cut by the Arizona Cardinals.

Professional athletes do not always have an inflated sense of their own importance, but it is a greater occupational hazard than groupies. It takes a powerful ego to compete in the public arenaand a sturdy sense of self-worth to rationalize a subordinate role.

McGee and Hearst are no different from most of their peers in contemporary sports. Wealth has freed them of fear for their jobs and emboldened them to air their grievances. They have been taught that the meek might inherit the earth, but not the Nike commercials.

You can't blame them, really. While fans might prefer that athletes place their team ahead of their personal priorities, this is surely not the natural order for human beings. If self-preservation is our most basic instinct, self-aggrandizement is probably a close second.

Bengals offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet says Hearst is being selfish. Deep down, aren't we all?

Athletes want to cash in

The coach's job, in essence, is to convince players that their self-interestsare best served by self-sacrifice; that the greatest rewards are the result of concerted effort. United we stand. Divided we fall. Etc.

All that ''There's-No-I-In-Team'' stuff works, to a certain extent, at the high school and college levels, where financial considerations are secondary and the best athletes are usually self-evident. Though it ought to be ingrained by the time players reach the pros, the team concept becomes a tougher sell all the time.

Patience is easily preached, but it has a hard time competing with instant gratification. The athlete's career is terribly brief, and he is advised to cash in while he can. For all the lip service they pay to the dogged pursuit of championships, the ultimate goal of the modern athlete is more often free agency.

Jack Morris helped win a World Series for his hometown Minnesota Twins, then promptly followed the money to Toronto. Neil O'Donnell led Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl, then skipped town for the hard cash and harsh ambiance of the New Jersey swamps.

Sure, the Super Bowl ring is an asset to any jewelry collection, but the check no longer provides much motivation. Each Dallas player earned $42,000 for the Cowboys' conquest of the Pittsburgh Steelers last January. Deion Sanders makes more than that for pushing pizza.

They can afford selfishness

The big money has made for a bolder generation of athletes and given rise to some troubling trends. Prominent players increasingly refer to themselves in the third person. They regard shoe companies as their primary employers. They fancy themselves as actors. They show up when it suits them.

Kevin Mitchell's latest desertion of the Cincinnati Reds reflects the rising tide of irresponsibility. No one doubts that the outfielder has been legitimately ill of late, but it is amazing how often he is absent without leave when the team departs San Diego.

Would Mitchell have missed his flight to Pittsburgh if he were relying on the Reds to pay off his mortgage? Who's to say? But among the many wonderful things about wealth is the ability to consider choices unavailable to Average Joes.

While Michael Jordan was pursuing his baseball fantasy, Scottie Pippen pulled himself out of a Chicago Bulls' playoff game because he was asked to serve as a decoy for a decisive shot.

Pippen's move was so utterly selfish that the Bengals' malcontents look like martyrs by comparison. Everything is relative.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 19, 1996.