Thursday, December 11, 1997
What to do with Wilkinson

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dan Wilkinson is looking for the door. Having previously expressed his concerns about the direction of his football team, the Bengals' defensive end Wednesday decried its location.

''I've always hated Cincinnati,'' Wilkinson said, unprompted, at Spinney Field. ''No ifs, ands (or buts) about it. I've always hated the city of Cincinnati, since when I was a little kid. The people seem to be prejudiced and uptight and stiff. There's no flexibility. Nor do they want to change it.''

If the antipathy was not already mutual, it has to be headed there now. Dan Wilkinson is burning bridges like so much kindling - or, as his estranged girlfriend alleges, marijuana. He is pursuing the position of persona non grata with a zeal he has not always demonstrated in chasing quarterbacks.

Wilkinson seems to believe the AstroTurf will be greener somewhere else, and he seems determined to make enough of a nuisance of himself to find out.

Having already cost the Bengals $14 million for four underwhelming seasons, Wilkinson may well be allowed the flexibility he seeks - free agency at season's end. But before the Bengals relinquish their rights to the former No. 1 draft choice, they must consider the consequences of life without him.

They must decide if Wilkinson is destined to disappoint, or could somehow be salvaged.

They must decide whether their dollars would be better spent on John Copeland, a defensive end who is three years older than Wilkinson, more susceptible to injury, and no nearer the Pro Bowl.

They must decide whether either of these underperforming players deserves to be paid as if they were elite performers. If not, they must then decide if they have the stomach for rebuilding that Dan Wilkinson purports to lack.

Too much invested

Logic tells you the Bengals have invested too much in Wilkinson and Copeland to let both of them leave without compensation. Yet in order to keep either player, Mike Brown would probably have to assign ''franchise'' or ''transition'' status to linemen who have totaled fewer tackles this season than safety Sam Shade.

That would mean, at minimum, a salary equal to the average paid to the top 10 players at their position. That would mean another case of the Bengals paying for potential instead of production. But what's Brown to do? Dan Wilkinson is only 24 years old, and presently embroiled in a bitter custody battle. Perhaps he will see things differently once the, ahem, smoke clears.

Shawnda LaMarr testified Tuesday that she couldn't trust Wilkinson with their child, alleging that he abuses marijuana and - or alcohol. Wilkinson vigorously denied those charges Wednesday, and volunteered to take a drug test to help restore his visitation rights.

''I'm innocent,'' he said. ''I've never had any type of drug problems or any type of alcohol problems and I've never failed a drug test . . . People that know me know these allegations are way off the charts.''

Bears burden of proof

Maybe so, but people who thought they knew Dan Wilkinson were stunned when he was convicted last year of committing domestic violence against LaMarr during her pregnancy. The man who would strike an expectant mother bears a burden of proof for the rest of his days. None of this necessarily disqualifies Wilkinson as a pro football player. His is a sport that values violence and often averts its eyes at drug abuse. It is no business for boy scouts.

If Wilkinson were playing to the level of his paycheck, the Bengals might be disposed to disregard his complaints. Because he has been overwhelmingly ordinary, they must assess whether he is worth the aggravation.

It is a tough call, but Dan Wilkinson need not like Cincinnati for Cincinnati to like him. Fans can be pretty flexible for a player who performs.

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