Getting Away With It

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

If the NFL is willing to fine Clinton Portis $20,000 for wearing the wrong socks and a tinted visor, one would think the league could muster up the courage to really hammer anybody who had the gall to spit in another man's face during a game, right in front of the referee no less.

Since the NFL fined Redskins safety Sean Taylor only $17,000 yesterday for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman, the only thing we can conclude is that the league is more offended by mismatched socks than having one of its players ejected during a playoff game for doing something truly vile and detestable.

Taylor and the Redskins are lucky they found a judge who was more lenient than I would have been. At best, Taylor should have been fined $100,000.

This isn't his first offense; Taylor is in just his second season but already is developing a reputation for hitting late and headhunting.

Not only that, this probably isn't even Taylor's first spitting offense; Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh accused Taylor of spitting in his face last year immediately after a game at FedEx Field.

And if Taylor and the NFL Players Association balked at a $100,000 fine, then okay, he could keep his money and simply sit out Saturday's playoff game at Seattle in a one-game suspension. The NFL punked out on this one. They like to play tough cop on socks and visors, and whether a guy's hair is covering the league's and manufacturer's logos, but won't confront a spitter caught in the act by one on-the-money referee.

See, it's always very late in the game when schools and leagues throw down a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior. For way too long it's one slap on the wrist after another until, if you're like Marcus Vick or Sean Taylor, you think everybody is bluffing and you can get away with whatever you want.

Then again, maybe Marcus Vick is somebody who believes his athletic prowess means no rules pertain to him. He can threaten anybody, break any rules and laws in the interest of keeping it real . The latest on Vick, according to police in Suffolk, Va., is that he allegedly brandished a firearm at three people at a McDonald's Sunday night. This comes a couple of days after being kicked out of Virginia Tech, upon which he said: "It's not a big deal. . . . I'll just move to the next level, baby."

Okay, so we've got allegedly brandishing a firearm one week after stomping his spikes on an opponent's leg during a game, which came two weeks after being arrested for a misdemeanor charge of driving on a suspended or revoked license. This came a couple of months after flipping the middle finger to West Virginia fans, and a year or so after being arrested for providing alcohol to three underage girls, reckless driving and possession of marijuana and a first suspension.

All this kid did during his time at Virginia Tech was get in trouble.

So you'll pardon me if I'm not going to give school and athletic department officials a standing ovation for throwing his butt out of school . . . eventually. He should have been thrown out months earlier. And university officials, if they have the guts, ought to be taking a serious look at the entire football program because there's way too much trouble involving the football players on that campus.

But we always forgive the talented ones, don't we?

Vick has skills that will make him some money in pro football, but maybe up in Canada before the NFL. Marcus Vick isn't his brother.

He thinks he is, but I'll believe the NFL scouts I talked to this weekend who say he isn't worth the trouble or anything above their second-day draft pick. I'm sure he's not worried, though.

Neither is Sean Taylor about a $17,000 fine, because he knows he's great and everything will be forgiven or winked at or explained away by coaches or lawyers.

Taylor awaits a Jan. 17 court date after being charged with felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor battery over the summer. On the field, off the field . . . it doesn't seem to matter to Taylor, who bailed on the league's mandatory rookie symposium, who refused to return his coach's phone calls during the offseason. Hey, when you're talented enough and rich enough to get your court date moved so it won't affect your football season, you can do whatever you damn well please, right?

You think Marcus Vick doesn't already know that's how the game is played? His problem is he overrates himself dramatically. Taylor, on the other hand, may operate this way for years for one reason: He's great on a football field.

An NFL quarterback who played against the Redskins this season told me that Taylor can be taken advantage of on certain kinds of plays, but otherwise he's often the baddest man on the field. He can run like Jerry Rice and hit like Night Train Lane, and if he does hit you a little too far out of bounds or just a little late after the whistle, then so be it. Receivers don't remember penalty flags; they remember writhing on the ground in agony.

Have you noticed that more receivers are dropping balls against the Redskins than in previous seasons? That's largely because they're distracted by the presence of Sean Taylor. Yes, there are players who are afraid of Taylor, just like they were afraid of Lane and Jack Tatum and Ronnie Lott and Dick Butkus. Taylor will mangle you. Any coach worth the chalk he uses to diagram plays loves that from his free safety.

And they love that he's a roughneck with that 1970s Raiders sort of mentality, a thug persona. When other football players say -- and believe me, they say it privately -- that Taylor has that thuggish quality, they're saying it half in admiration, half in fear. No team wants to quiet that entirely. We see Taylor as being in trouble. In football, it's thought that he is trouble.

So this whole thing sort of works in concert, being a menace on the field and off it. Taylor gets to play this week in Seattle, and he might just be the difference in the game because he's that effective in a game that amounts to one big organized fight. Or he might be the difference in the game for drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty or getting ejected when his team needs him.

The NFL could have gone a long way toward letting Taylor (and anybody else who wants to spit on somebody) know what acts simply wouldn't be tolerated on a football field. Instead, they took some pocket change off him and sent him back on the field. We'll see whether fining Taylor was a deterrent or a mere annoyance en route to more trouble.

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