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"Comeback kids' are missing the point about redemption

The best thing about being a celebrity in America is not that you get to cut lines at movies and restaurants _ it's that you get to cut 12-step programs down to a more convenient three.

Step 1: Announce that you are indeed guilty of crime or sin and have done time in either court-ordered house arrest or at the Betty Ford Clinic to prove it.

Step 2: Give a remorse-stricken interview _ preferably to Oprah or People or Vanity Fair, though Hard Copy or Primetime Live will do _ in which you describe your redemption to the fans.

Step 3: Advance directly to Go, and start collecting big bucks for your comeback career.

This is the game plan that has served Mike Tyson and Darryl Strawberry so well this month _ though Tyson, being a convicted rapist, actually had to reach Go by way of jail. And they have the script down perfectly. Tyson has declared that "God is great!" and pledged a fortune to charity.

Strawberry somberly told us of his "very difficult road and difficult struggle," even as he added the proviso "I don't think anyone has the right to judge anyone else."

The writer Jill Nelson, who speaks so eloquently about the bad message sent to young people by Tyson's rehabilitation at the altar of Al Sharpton, said on Nightline that "redemption is a process . . . not something declared, or conferred at a parade or rally or press conference."

Lee Brown, the director of U.S. drug policy, has slammed George Steinbrenner for sending the message "you can use drugs and still be rewarded with a lucrative contract with the Yankee organization."

Nelson and Brown are right, but their remarks assume that American professional sports might still be a pure calling that produces heroes and "role models" who hew to a high moral standard.

Big money long ago brought sports down to the same level of hucksterism as the rest of the industries in our celebrity culture. Our star athletes' new three-step program is the norm among stars in show business, politics and televangelism.

What's amazing is that it took sports so long to catch on to the profitable game of repackaging yesterday's damaged goods as today's new and improved product.

This brand of American showmanship has its roots in vaudeville: celebrated outlaws, once out of jail, would barnstorm the country, turning their past transgressions into an "act."

Hollywood perfected the technique, once it figured out that a star's fall from grace needn't be the end of a career but could instead be the start of a new one, as permanent protagonist in a real-life soap opera.

Elizabeth Taylor, surely the Queen of Recovery, has made an art form out of rising repeatedly from the ashes _ and now serves as honorary hostess for Michael Jackson on his current redemption trail.

With the three-step miracle program to renewed fame and fortune perfected by performers such as Drew Barrymore and Courtney Love, the repentant Jim Bakker can't be far behind. No doubt his next stop will be the talk-show and news-magazine circuit, today's closest equivalent to vaudeville, perhaps with Sol Wachtler or that other born-again do-gooder, Michael Milken, sharing the bill.

All of them can be counted on to speak, as Tyson and Strawberry do, in the jargon of the actual 12-step programs that have become the opiate of the American masses.

Politicians from Bill Clinton to Oliver North to Marion Barry have followed a similar path _ looking for a payoff in votes, not cash. The medium of their confessions may be more elevated than their show-biz and sports counterparts _ for a future president, only 60 Minutes will do _ but the message is the same: I am famous and I confess, therefore I am granted instant absolution.

It's a message that sells. If the Yankees' main goal was to win the pennant, the team might have chased after some pitching. But filling seats this season is the more pressing concern. Whatever Strawberry accomplishes at the plate, he may be just the vaudeville act to stir the box office.

Or will the public finally tire of all these comeback kids? With so many reformed sinners afoot, we're rapidly reaching the scary point where scoundrels as brazenly unrepentant as George Steinbrenner may start to seem refreshing.

New York Times News Service