Athlete's image isn't always reality

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The tragic death of Steve McNair is a story ripe for jumping to conclusions, but of course that's the absolute wrong move. Let's try to remember that we jump to a wrong conclusion in the first place when we think we know who professional athletes really are because we get to watch them play, listen to them talk, and see them on TV.

As McNair's grisly murder reminded us again over this holiday weekend, the truth is we don't know them anywhere near as well as we presume, and our conclusions can often be exposed as woefully uninformed.

No matter how often we're forced to confront it, discovering the very real difference between the public face and the private life of a star athlete or celebrity is a shocking and disturbing exercise. When the reality seems to differ so dramatically from the image, there's a whiplash effect that's hard to avoid. Role models do not fall quietly.

Hearing the details of McNair's bloody death in Nashville will not change the way I'll remember his playing career and his 13 seasons as an NFL quarterback. He was a tough and tenacious competitor, an exemplary teammate, and a natural leader who became the heart and soul of the Tennessee Titans franchise. The guy they called "Stevie Wonder'' gave us some great memories and moments to savor.

But sadly, his legacy now includes more than just his football feats and his numerous contributions to the communities he played in. His violent death, at 36, under questionable and compromising circumstances, is more than a footnote in his story. Our memory of McNair will now juxtapose some of the wonderful things we saw him do on the field with some of the dubious off-field choices he made late in life.

Though we don't know the full extent of the Nashville police investigation yet, we do know McNair was murdered and that some of his bad choices -- where to be and who to be with on that early Saturday morning -- clearly played a role in his death. Not to get too simplistic on you, but those facts are hard to refute.

I expect McNair's story will become partly an object lesson, and a cautionary tale. Perhaps the greatest impact will be felt in the pro athlete community, as each individual weighs the results of the choices they've made in their personal lives, and whether or not undue risks have been taken. If Steve McNair, who was seen as one of the true good guys in the NFL, can meet this kind of end, it might just happen to anyone.

Then again, let's not be naïve. Even though everyone knows there is some truth to the cliché that very little good happens past the hour of midnight in certain situations, McNair's death is not going to completely stop pro athletes from winding up in the headlines for the wrong reasons. McNair himself had his name linked to two DUI cases this decade, but it didn't convince him to swear off Nashville bars or always call a taxi. Usually one's choices don't exact such a heavy price to pay, but they can in extreme cases, as the saga of Donte' Stallworth has shown us in recent months.

Having been on the NFL beat for 20 years now, I'm well versed in the conflict that arises at times between a player's public image and his private life. I've covered numerous star players who talked the talk, but came nowhere near walking the walk. Sterling reputations can look gleaming on the outside but appear considerably less shiny in other lights. The reality of some pro athletes living double lives won't disappear just because McNair died young.

Maybe all we know is McNair's murder reminds us once again not to make the mistake of presuming we know the athletes we watch and follow. The public image is not necessarily the private reality. The hard-earned reputation may not be backed up by all their words or deeds. Steve McNair dying is a very sad story, and that's the only conclusion that seems beyond dispute.