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  Plea Aside, Harding Already Cashes In

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 1994; Page C1

Prosecutors in Portland, Ore., and Detroit tried to put the best spin on the plea agreement they struck with figure skater Tonya Harding Wednesday, insisting the fact that she'll do no prison time was offset by the profound damage to her skating career and her personal reputation. But even as prosecutors spoke, the ink was drying on a movie deal Harding signed this week with the Hollywood production company that just finished a four-hour miniseries on — would you believe — the Menendez family murders.

Further, the people in the business of making celebrity pay won't be surprised if more deals for Harding are on the way.

As one L.A.-based press agent in the entertainment industry said yesterday, "It's not going to be classy things. But the money's not always in class."

Harding pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony charge of hindering the investigation into the kneecapping of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. Under the agreement, Harding received a lengthy list of penalties requiring her to perform community service, pay a total of $160,000 in fines and costs, submit to three years of supervised probation and undergo a psychiatric evaluation and court-ordered therapy, if necessary.

She was also forced to resign her membership from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which picks teams for national, Olympic and world amateur competitions.

Harding's resignation prevents her from competing in those competitions — for now. But, as USFSA rules stand, she could petition for reinstatement. Even if Harding doesn't, some agents and promoters don't rule out her participation in traditional touring ice shows or, especially, the pro competitions that offer as much as $30,000 in prize money to winners and $15,000 to runners-up.

Dick Button, who runs two of the pro competitions as well as serving as an ice skating commentator for ABC, said yesterday: "We have a group of people who select the skaters for our {pro} competitions, and I'm sure Tonya Harding, like every other professional skater who was available, would be considered. To be honest, I'd really prefer everyone put this all behind us. To me, the whole situation was a tragedy for everyone involved. It was unfortunate that the skating was not the focal point at the Olympics. But maybe the silver lining will turn out to be a lot more people were exposed to figure skating and will become fans of the sport."

Agent Michael Rosenberg, who represents 36 figure skaters, including gold medalist Oksana Baiul of Ukraine, once numbered Harding among his clients. He too doesn't rule out a resumption of Harding's skating career.

"I would never represent her again," Rosenberg said, "But I don't see why, once she has paid her debt to society, she won't have that chance. She's only, what, 23 years old? She still has a chance to go make a living, make a life, start over, and utilize her God-given talents."

As sports anti-heroes from Pete Rose to Mike Tyson, Denny McLain to George Steinbrenner already have proved, there can be life after jail or self-destruction. And it can pay pretty well.

Especially if Harding's handlers think creatively.

Zev Braun, head of Zev Braun Pictures, Inc. in Los Angeles, confirmed yesterday that his company signed a deal with Harding for an undisclosed fee to produce the only "authorized" version of her life story, either as a movie or TV show.

"Right now, I'm not sure which it will be," Braun said yesterday. "The negotiations went on for weeks, but they were just concluded in the last few days."

As part of the deal, Harding will do her own skating in the movie.

Braun said there was a lot of competition for Harding's story, "and some other companies offered Harding more money. In our proposal we said we would do the real Tonya Harding story, going way beyond and deeper than what we know from public court records, and the reports that are public knowledge. It will include new things, and it will cover everything."

Oregon now has a law that requires convicted criminals to turn over proceeds from movies or books about their crimes to a state fund, and the victim of the crime can then sue to get some of that money. However, a similar law in New York has been ruled unconstitutional and Oregon authorities have said they do not plan to enforce theirs.

Like Harding, Rose and Tyson and McLain and Steinbrenner all have been in trouble with the law. And all four men have salvaged careers. Tyson — who reiterated in this month's issue of Esquire magazine he'll definitely fight again when his rape sentence concludes — is likely to produce the highest-grossing boxing event in history with his first bout. McLain — the former Detroit Tigers pitcher who served prison time for racketeering — is a popular, general-interest talk show host in Detroit now. New York Yankees owner Steinbrenner was reinstated by baseball and former player Rose, who hopes for the same, maintained in a 1993 Sports Illustrated interview that it's not all that surprising that today's pariah becomes tomorrow's forgiven star.

"See, I got the idea if I took the high road and tried to do things right, I'd be all right because I'm not the first athlete that's ever got into trouble that took the high road and who's gotten back," Rose, banned from baseball for his alleged gambling on the sport, told SI. "America is known for giving guys a second chance."

But Harding never achieved the status in her sport that Tyson and Rose did in theirs.

"She's a footnote in history, everyone will remember her name," said Leslie Van Buskirk, senior features editor at US magazine. "But it will be because she was notorious, not because of her skating."

Then again, being notorious might be enough.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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