Thursday, March 19, 1997
NHL vandals can't buy off
public opinion


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thumbscrews might work. Yeah, that's the ticket. Let's see how tough these hockey punks are when we put some serious pressure on them.

We have ways of making them talk. We just haven't seen fit to use them. But a month has passed since the American hockey vandals fled Nagano, and their conspiracy of cowardice remains unbroken. Where's a good rack when you really need one?

No one has been willing to accept responsibility for the trashing of rooms in the Olympic Village, and no one has yet turned informer. The heat, evidently, has not been turned up high enough.

The United States Olympic Committee has played good cop and bad cop, and has looked as clueless as Inspector Clouseau.

The National Hockey League interviewed every player on the team, and failed to implicate anyone. Team captain Chris Chelios, who owns one of the better alibis, has written a $3,000 check for the damages in the hope that that would help close close the case.

Guess what? It hasn't happened. The USOC still wants answers, and the players continue to dodge questions as if they carried anthrax. ''I would appreciate just as little coverage as possible,'' Phoenix's Jeremy Roenick told the Washington Post. ''I think it's best if nobody talks about anything.''

Persecution or torture?

William Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, thinks the players are being persecuted and is eager to move on to other matters. Me, I want to find out if the Chinese water torture is worthy of its hype.

There are at least two schools of thought here.

One says that boys will be boys, and that rich boys will be boys when they're supposed to be men. The other is the reform school school of thought, which holds that every evil deed has a corresponding discipline, and that the penalties escalate when you don't get the truth.

A month ago, this sorry episode might have been satisfactorily concluded with a confession, a check and an earnest apology. But now, the stakes are higher.

The failure of any individual to admit involvement, and the collective stonewalling on behalf of the culprits, has been an ongoing embarrassment to the USOC, the National Hockey League and to anyone interested in America's image.

Perhaps the issue is not as provocative as President Clinton's sex life, but the hockey players raise some of the same concerns as the temporary tenant of the White House. Our representatives - be they elected or athletic - should be held accountable for actions that reflect on the rest of us. They can't get off simply by changing the subject.

With rank comes responsibility, and there is no higher rank in sports than that conveyed by a jersey that bears the letters USA. The jock who represents his country is responsible to roughly 250 million constituents.

''I'm not sure everything has to be in the public domain,'' said Richard Katz, the Cincinnati attorney who sits on the USOC Board of Directors. ''I'm not sure all the laundry has to be aired. But I do think the members of the USA Team have a responsibility to the public, and it's not just the amount of $3,000. There is a question of integrity.''

International conspiracy

To date, Team USA's definition of integrity is to take the rap together rather than rat out any single player. This is the team concept taken to a dangerous extreme, for it compounds a routine crime of rage with a massive conspiracy.

The effect is that the innocent are indistinguishable from the guilty, and the guilty are able to avoid punishment. USOC President Bill Hybl concedes that a blanket suspension could be undone by an independent arbitrator. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has so far been another empty suit issuing empty threats.

This simply won't do. It's time to turn this inquest into an inquisition. We need answers, and we need them now.

Igor, where's my cat o' nine tails?

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE