If Lawrence Taylor is convicted of or pleads guilty to felony charges of third-degree rape of a 16-year-old girl, former NFL linebacker Ralph Cindrich would like to see Taylor receive more punishment than a prison sentence.

Cindrich would like to see the former Giants great removed from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"You represent something more than just yourself, and when you're at your height, you'd better make sure you don't get into areas that are going to take away from what got you there," said Cindrich, now a Pittsburgh-based agent for professional athletes. "When you disrespect the name [of the NFL], you disrespect yourself, and you have to be held accountable."

Cindrich likely will never see his wish regardless of the disposition of Taylor's case; the current bylaws of the Hall of Fame do not contain any language that would remove a player or prevent one from earning the sport's highest honor. But Cindrich's anger at Taylor's off-field problems, which have dogged the former linebacker during and after his career, is symptomatic of a growing pushback at professional athletes whose off-field behavior has tarnished their on-field legacy.

Whether it's the revelations about Tiger Woods in the wake of a car accident at his home last November, or Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's involvement in an alleged sexual assault case last month that resulted in a six-game suspension, or Taylor being brought up on rape charges, athletes are increasingly coming under scrutiny and criticism.

Stanley Teitelbaum, a psychologist who has written extensively about the darker side of sports figures, believes athletes are paying a higher price for their off-field problems, especially when it comes to the abusive treatment of women.

"I think we're in a mini-epidemic of these incidents, because they're coming up more and more frequently," said Teitelbaum, author of the book "Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side: Sex, Drugs and Cover-ups."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Athletes have acquired a distorted self-image because of the way they've been treated, often from an early age. They've been conditioned to think that they're special. If you're told that often enough, you view yourself that way and act that way. They think they can walk on water, are above it all and don't have to worry about the consequences for crossing the line."

Teitelbaum believes Roethlisberger's suspension, handed down last month by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell despite the fact that the Steelers quarterback was not charged in connection with an incident with a 20-year-old college student in March, represented a defining moment in how an athlete's sexual transgressions now are on a par with other off-field issues.

"What's interesting about the Roethlisberger incident is that even though he hasn't been charged with a crime, the commissioner decided to levy a suspension," said Teitelbaum, who also wrote the book "Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols."

"The most important takeaway there is that it puts crossing boundaries or inappropriate actions by athletes toward women on a par with other more self-destructive actions like performance-enhancing drugs or gambling. There are sanctions for those, but the message has been that if you do something that crosses the line against women, we'll more or less look the other way. That's why Goodell's suspension was a big step forward, putting sexual assault and violence toward women on a par with other situations."

Goodell isn't in position to sanction Taylor, whose behavior certainly doesn't reflect well on the NFL. Nor will Taylor's problems result in his banishment from the Hall of Fame.

Giants videos

"We have no provision to remove anyone from the Hall of Fame," said Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "It's an election based solely on what a player did on the field."

The issue of Hall of Fame removal came up in the aftermath of the 1994 murders of O.J. Simpson's wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman. Simpson was acquitted of the murders in a criminal trial but was found liable for damages in a wrongful-death civil trial. Simpson remains enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

"We've really held fast and pointed to our bylaws," Horrigan said. "At this point, it will stay as is, the point being that we look at their careers on the field. Sometimes that does involve players whose careers may have been interrupted from a lapse in their judgment. But hopefully, their careers will reflect their success at that second chance."

Horrigan believes there is value in all the players enshrined in Canton, even the disreputable ones.

"I would hope that people would find in the 258 other Hall of Famers a reason to express the positive values of what they accomplished," he said. "And if there's anything to be said for the ability of humans to err, there's a life lesson in there as well."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Cindrich wonders, however, about the message being received by fans who visit the Hall of Fame if players remain enshrined no matter what they have done during or after their careers are over.

"If you're taking your kids to the Hall of Fame and you see these examples, what do you tell them?" Cindrich said. "In my view, you have a higher duty, a higher responsibility to be in that league."