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Don't let abusers off hook

"It's a private matter, really."

"It's nobody's business."

"Things have been blown out of proportion."

By now, the words have become painfully familiar. The abusers know what to say. They know how to pinch their faces into that wounded grimace of the misplaced victim. They know how to shrug and close the discussion whenever the questions become uncomfortable. Unlike their victims, the abusers know how to defend themselves.

"It's a family situation, you know."

"It's just miscommunication."

"It's personal."

Time after time, athlete after athlete, incident after incident, we hear the same phrases. Another act of domestic violence, another police report with grisly details, and another denial. Swap the faces. Change the names. Rotate the sports. It doesn't matter. It's the same ugliness.

More and more, it seems to be happening. But the message is always the same: These things happen. It happened behind closed doors. Don't intrude.

Well, bull.

This is the big lie of domestic violence. It isn't a private matter. It is people's business. It doesn't matter if the doors are closed.

Domestic violence is a crime. And it's about time the abusers stopped hiding behind its private nature and pro sports took this more seriously than a public relations distraction.

If you follow the news, even a little, it should strike you that we are in an epidemic of domestic violence. The crimes, and the daily nature at which they occur, should make you gasp.

Allen Iverson, basketball player.

Derrick Rodgers, football player.

Scott Erickson, baseball player.

Al Unser Jr., race car driver.

Glenn Robinson, basketball player.

Those are just the recent headlines. A complete list would fill a sports almanac too large to lift and too sickening to read.

You want a tiny portion of those who have been accused? Mike Tyson. Jason Kidd. Jose Canseco. Corey Dillon. Michael Pittman. Barry Bonds. Paul Gascoine. Jim Brown. Darryl Strawberry. Lawrence Phillips. William Perry. Riddick Bowe. Warren Moon. Scottie Pippen. John Daly. Frank Mayweather Jr. Oh, and O.J. Simpson.

There are a lot of famous names on the list. A lot of players who are considered great guys by those they play alongside.

You can tell because every time an athlete is accused of beating up his spouse, there is a line of teammates ready to tell you what a swell, misunderstood guy he really is and how strong he will be during the ensuing distraction.

Then the designated buddy will shrug. And he'll say something such as, "Well, these things happen. We weren't there. "

This just in: So what? We weren't there at the Lindbergh kidnapping, either. Which also took place behind closed doors. It didn't mean it wasn't a serious situation.

The nature of pro sports leagues, however, is to treat domestic violence as if any investigation is an intrusion, as if it's nobody's business but the athlete with the bruised knuckles. That's absurd.

There are a lot of things that are nobody's business. Who an athlete sleeps with. What illnesses he might have. Whether he likes a drink before dinner. Who he voted for in the presidential election.

But if the public has the right to know anything, it is if an athlete has assaulted another human being.

Why, then, do sports leagues seem to care so much about if an athlete gambles, takes drugs or rides motorcycles as a hobby and care so little about domestic violence?

If professional sports is to take this seriously _ and it's running late _ then it must start taking finances and freedoms from the athletes involved. How about a monthlong suspension for the guilty? How about three?

We all have a line of unacceptable behavior. It doesn't matter how angry you are. You don't march into your boss' office and start swearing. Most athletes don't choke their coaches or spit in the umpire's face, no matter how angry they are. Because that is out of bounds.

Somehow, spousal abuse must be put on the other side of the line again.

Athletes, and everyone else, must learn it isn't done. Period.

It is at this point the athletes' defenders rush in to say there isn't a lot of difference between athletes and the rest of society when it comes to violence. That isn't a defense of the athletes. It's an indictment of a society in which 1.9-million women were assaulted last year.

(Besides, shouldn't the rate for athletes be less than society's in general? After all, no one is exactly squabbling about the rent money.)

To be fair, the nature of domestic violence makes it more difficult to separate the innocent from the guilty. Tempers cool. Stories change. Charges drop. Abusers apologize. Victims believe it won't happen again. Couples try to work things out.

Often, that makes it impossible for prosecutors to prove the original charge.

The result is a lot of these charges fade away, and we tend to forget about how much blood the original police reports mentioned until the next headline.

Soon, Erickson will pitch again. Iverson will drive to the basket. Unser will make a pit stop. And on and on.

Will we still care? Will we remember the accusations? Or have we been numbed to it all?

Oh, we care about the gossipy little details, like whether Iverson's wife was indeed naked when he threw her out of the house, or exactly what Rodgers said to his wife when he tracked her and another man into a restaurant, or which spot on the road Unser left his girlfriend after hitting her in the face.

But do we care about the crimes themselves? Do we care about the horror and the intimidation that comes along with it?

Or, when the accused tells us this is none of our business, do we simply agree?