03 February 2007

A Tank Who Does Not Think


Maybe Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson will have no impact in the Super Bowl. Years from now, when networks show highlights of the game in glossy, cinematized form, Johnson may blend in with the rest of the Chicago defense, with no drive-ending tackle or game-saving sack to his name. A glance at the stat sheet late Sunday night may show nothing credited to number 99; it could be as though he is not even there.

Except Tank Johnson will be there, with his entire name on the back of his uniform, his balloon for a belly, his exceptional run-stopping ability. He will be there despite the fact that he is scheduled to stand trial this Thursday, four days after the biggest game of the year, back in Illinois. The military analogies are irresistible with a nickname like Tank; he is a Panzer on the defensive line, a 6-foot-3 behemoth who specializes in stopping momentum before it starts. With the nickname there is surely a requisite amount of machismo, a swagger that a man nicknamed Dune Buggy or Jet Ski might never have.

If Tank believes that he’s an unstoppable, tank-like force on the gridiron, that’s fine; it’s when he translates this mentality off the field that the armored one finds himself in trouble. When police raided Johnson’s home in December, they found an arsenal large enough for a Rainbow Six protagonist: two assault rifles, four handguns, everything but a rocket launcher in the refrigerator door. His arrest for possessing firearms without a state gun-owner identification card was his third in 18 months. The first came for illegally possessing a gun at a nightclub, the second for aggravated assault and threatening a police officer at a nightclub. Tank’s punishment? Eighteen months probation and 40 hours of community service for the gun possession, charges dropped for the assault.

Why Johnson needed enough guns to stave off a blitzkrieg from the Third Reich is unclear. But a Skokie, Illinois judge decided enough was enough, telling Tank three days before Christmas that, because the weapons charges had violated his probation, he was not allowed to leave the Land of Lincoln. Conveniently, the Bears had home-field advantage in the playoffs, leaving Tank, like a grounded teenager who opened the door to find the party had come to him, able to play in both home playoff games. But the victories over the Seahawks and Saints created a problem, because the Super Bowl was in Miami, not at Soldier Field. On January 23rd, a Cook County judge granted Tank’s request to allow him to travel to Miami and play in the Super Bowl. The prosecution, trying mightily to cover up their navy and orange Bears gear, agreed that the court approval came for “a legitimate work-related reason.”

So now Tank, a man with a passion for guns and nightclubs, is in Miami, a city whose sidewalks don’t exactly teem with the Quakers you find on your oatmeal boxes. And while the Bears undoubtedly have him sleeping on a cot in a bank vault somewhere, forbidding him to emerge until the team bus leaves for Pro Player Stadium on Sunday afternoon, his presence is a disappointment. Judge John Moran could have set a precedent by telling Johnson that he could not simply moonlight as Rambo and expect the legal system not to object. He could have told him that his repeated run-ins with the law were unacceptable, and that he could not play in Super Bowl XLI. Instead, Moran fell victim to the pressures of the Super Bowl phenomenon itself, granting Tank the same preferential legal treatment that has become all too familiar for a professional athlete.

This treatment is inevitable for our star athletes, heroes to millions whose feats often supersede all else. But there is a difference between a discount at a car dealership and a discount as a law-abiding citizen. Repeatedly allowing athletes who have been arrested or are on trial to continue playing is putting them above the law. They are innocent until proven guilty, but they should also be suspended until that innocence is proven. If an athlete is arrested, he should be suspended at least one game. If he is on trial, he should be held out of competition until the trial is over. Until we draw the line, teams like the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals will continue to have arrest-offs, and players like Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who has made a hobby out of spitting on Miss Pacmans at Nashville nightclubs, will act as though the rules don’t apply to them. When he takes the field Sunday, Tank Johnson will be little more than a 300-pound reminder of a double standard on the biggest stage in sports. Hopefully, the cameras won’t go anywhere near him.

6 comments:

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