THE HOT TOPIC: Media's drunk on Joba & Isiah

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and

One thing that clearly emerges from the fog of uncertainty,

when it comes to the behavior of sports celebrities, is the frantic public

treatment it gets. Before the latest Isiah Thomas mystery, already elevated

from its unknowable personal details to the yowling "ISIAH O.D." banner in an

NYC tabloid, there was almost a week's worth of poking at Joba Chamberlain

under the microscope.

At least that front-page frenzy stopped short of a "Brainless Man in

Topless Bar" headline. In turning the Yankees pitcher's DUI arrest into a

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federal case - not to mention a self-parody of sensationalism - local tabloids

(including this one) lurched away from legitimate public concern into

not-entirely-sober salacious prying.

Chamberlain's dumb deed, of driving (let alone speeding) when allegedly

drunk, was both news and a public service announcement: Don't do this. (The

same of which could be said of Thomas, assuming we think we know what Thomas

did, or why.)

But treating either episode as the October surprise in a heated election

season - in more than one place, Chamberlain's variously reported

confrontations in a Nebraska strip club were described as his "Wild Night" -

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was indicative of another form of intoxication.

And not helpful to anybody.

"It's of public interest," sports psychiatrist Allan Lans said of the

Chamberlain incident. "It's not really a public matter, I don't think. This is

what happens when baseball gets out of the headlines and they can't stand it

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because the team is not in the World Series and getting everybody in New York


"What's required is privacy and understanding of what really happened."

During 18 years as the Mets' team psychiatrist, Lans worked closely with

Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden in their battles with addiction. He

repeatedly has argued for teams to hire medical professionals who establish

ongoing relationships with all players.

Such pre-emptive action would provide the crucial knowledge of

Chamberlain's background, habits and insecurities, and thus the ability to

determine whether he has a real problem or made a single frighteningly

dimwitted move that could have cost lives. (As it cost drunk-driving St. Louis

Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock last year.)

Someone with his training, noted sports psychologist Tom Ferraro, "would

listen for things that could be driving the problem: The pressure of

professional sports - massive pressure, fatigue, tension, anxiety, anger. He

would look at the past: A possible broken home, deprivation, emptiness in

childhood. He would talk about grandiosity, narcissism, entitlement that comes

with being a professional athlete, and the confidence and ignorance of youth."

Whatever issues, if any, might apply to Chamberlain, Ferraro hardly

recommended the advice that Strawberry, himself a recidivist, suggested to

Newsday - that Chamberlain have a heart-to-heart talk with teammate Derek

Jeter. "He should get professional support," Ferraro said. "Not from a

bartender or stripper or a chat with Derek Jeter."

Ferraro, who has worked with athletes, teams and celebrities for more than

20 years at the Williston Park-based Long Island Institute of Psychoanalysis,

has found that the sports culture "absolutely condones alcohol use, and that

adds to this very serious problem. In fact, I'm shocked if I'm treating a

professional athlete who does not have some drug addiction."

Still, as Lans cautioned, "we really don't know" whether Chamberlain has a

past pattern of driving with a blood-alcohol content more than 1 1/2 times the

legal limit, as was recorded at his arrest last weekend. Or whether he is just

another 23-year-old living what is so often portrayed as a regular-guy

lifestyle, even by national politicians. (Joba Six-Pack?)

To Arizona State University journalism professor Tim McGuire, former

president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Chamberlain arrest

needed to be reported. "The reason you and I don't drive drunk anymore, and I

did 30 years ago, is because the media started publicizing the dangers and made

us aware it was stupid," McGuire said.

"But it's about scale. It was a two- or three-paragraph story. It's quite a

leap to go to sensational, salacious big headlines, back Chamberlain into a

strip club and subject him to public embarrassment."

As Lans said, "At this stage, the kid is humiliated. People don't tolerate

humiliation very well. Wars have been fought about humiliation. And, with

athletes, when they feel humiliated, they become even more forceful in their


Maybe they won't sleep well. Maybe that would lead to bad, or uninformed,

decisions. In what McGuire calls "our screaming society," that would guarantee

a major public announcement.

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