MIAMI – “The horror. The horror,” Kurtz whispered with his dying breaths in “Heart of Darkness.”

We’re going to borrow Joseph Conrad’s immortal words to describe recent oozing from sports’ carbuncle.

It is caused by an infection that’s never been cured, even if you go all the way back to Babe Ruth. It gets inflamed from time to time.

It’s ugly to look at: the dark, amoral, twisted side of sports stars. Athletes who were thought to exemplify manliness are instead exposed as the puniest of men.

While acquiring fame, they must have lost the emotion of shame. While their egos inflated, their capacity for empathy shrunk. Control freaks on the field of play, they lacked self-control off it. How else to explain the behavior of Lawrence Taylor, George Huguely, Ben Roethlisberger and Tiger Woods?

Let’s be careful to distinguish between varying degrees.

Taylor, the Hall of Fame linebacker, is a 51-year-old man charged with raping a 16-year-old girl who arrived in his hotel room with a black eye — an obvious sign of distress. Police said he admitted to having sex and paying her $300. She was a runaway delivered by a pimp.

Huguely is the University of Virginia lacrosse player charged with killing his one-time girlfriend, Yeardley Love, also a lacrosse player. Both were supposed to graduate this month. Police said he kicked down the door of her bedroom, shook her violently and repeatedly hit her head against the wall.

Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, was accused of assaulting a 20-year-old female college student in a bar bathroom March 5, the second accusation against him in nine months. There was insufficient evidence to file charges, partly because the police acted like groupies, but Roethlisberger, who referred to women as “bitches,” was suspended for six games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Woods faces no criminal charges in his sex scandal. He treated his wife like dirt, even when she was pregnant, even when they had newborn babies. He treated his many paramours like depositories for his obsessions.

Their link with sports cannot be ignored. Sports played a constant role in the development of their personalities and attitudes toward women. As star athletes they were stroked into believing they were special, superior, entitled. You want something, you go get it, and don’t take no for an answer — that’s the habit of a winner. You bend the opposition to your will — that’s the mind-set of a champion. It’s throwback, macho thinking, but it persists, especially in contact sports such as football and lacrosse.

What’s curious is the dichotomy between their confidence during competition and absence of self-respect in their personal lives. Much was given to them but little was expected — beyond wins.

To see these guys stripped of their ever-present baseball caps, standing at a microphone and issuing scripted apologies is to see them for what they are: cowards.

Want an escape from bad news about the economy, the oil spill, the bomb threat in Times Square?

It’s tempting to say skip the sports news because it’s just as depressing, filled with cheaters, jerks, criminals, people warped by wealth and worship.

But that’s become a cliche, and we know sports is buried in cliches.

Accept that Roethlisberger is a lout and Taylor is a troubled maniac, but assert that the bad apples are greatly outnumbered.

Seek a cure for the carbuncle.

There are so many positive examples.

Here is just one: the Phoenix Suns. The team’s players, in agreement with their owner, wore orange “Los Suns” jerseys in Game 2 of their playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. They did it to protest Arizona’s new immigration law, which essentially allows racial profiling by authorities. They did it to show solidarity with Latinos in their community.

It was radical. It was smart.

Rather than skulking around hotels, bars and parking lots, Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Amare Stoudemire took a public stand.

They mixed politics and sports. Good for them. Muhammad Ali used to do it. Arthur Ashe, too. The Olympics has been doing it since they held the Games in ancient Greece.

Rather than show contempt for fellow men and women, they showed support and understanding.

“I think the law is very misguided and to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties,” said Nash, a Canadian, who talked about the beauty of the multicultural NBA.

Said Hill: “To me, it’s a greater injustice to not speak up.”

Real men use their brains.

“Los Suns” and athletes like them stanch the fetid oozing, at least temporarily.

Rather than abuse their fame, they use it and remind us that the good guys prevail over cowards.


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