It's hard to know exactly what to say about John Riggins, now that he's done his customary grin-and-giggle act for the cameras.

Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da da da-da.

"I've been a baaaaaaddd boy . . . "

"I think I really do have a drinking problem, (pause) but that's only when I'm hanging from the rafters by my knees . . . (pause) Other than that, no. It goes down just like for everybody else . . . "

"I don't think if everybody grew up to be like me, it would be the worst thing that could happen in the United States . . . (pause) Maybe the second worst, but not the worst . . . (pause) Probably need a whole lot more police, though, wouldn't we? . . . "

You saw the pictures, didn't you?

Big smile. Smug grin.

You know me, guys. Riggo's the name, fun's the game. Oh this boy just wants to have fu-un.

As usual he got the laughs he was after. And as usual he walked away clean. Nobody laid a glove on him.

He has spent the whole of his 36 years with a Walkman on his head and the sound turned all the way up, singing along: You can't touch me. I can cut my hair any way I want. I can wear my clothes any way I want. I can play football as long as I want. I can gain 1,000 yards any time I want. I can drink, party, stay out late, do whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want. I'm smart, I'm funny, I'm handsome, I'm in my prime and I'm sure enough spun from gold. Go ahead, take your best shot, world. You can't touch me.

So far, who has?

He is, by miles, the most popular athlete in this city. By miles, the most likable. By miles, the most beloved.

He's way up there, way up in that rare, thin air.

Lost in space, I think. And, perhaps, falling.

His public behavior is getting more and more outrageous. Don't confuse the savvy charm of wearing top hat and tails to a Super Bowl party with the witless exhibitionism of falling asleep on the floor at a black-tie political reception while the vice president is speaking, or the ignominy of being charged with public drunkenness. For all that Riggins has going for him, these graceless acts make him look, suspiciously, like a man flirting with the notion of giving it all back, like a man imprisoned by the ease of his balancing act and waiting, maybe even hoping, for something to finally force the pieces to come tumbling down around him so he can be done with it.

If you listened closely, would you hear him asking for help?

The little boy inside the man, is he at all scared?

At Carlisle on Tuesday there was, as is Riggins' public style, no act of contrition, no acknowledgement of real concern for what he called the "little embarrassment" he has caused.

"No. 1, I don't drive when I've been drinking," Riggins said, "and I think that's the most important thing." He continued voluntarily: "No. 2 is I don't have any problems at home. I have a happy family. I don't have a battered wife or abused children. And No. 3, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe I've ever suffered on the football field from my activities off of it."

No. 1: If the police charges are correct, on July 25 when he and a friend were arrested, Riggins was a drunken passenger in a car being driven by someone who was drunk. While it is laudable not to drive while drunk, it's stupid and irresponsible to sit there and let someone drunk drive. Friends don't let friends drive drunk. A drunk driver is a loaded gun aimed at everyone on the road.

No. 2: No one is doubting Riggins as husband or father. But, as long as he brought his family into this, wouldn't it be naive to suggest that the family wouldn't be hurt and embarrassed by his recent notoriety?

No. 3: He is a great football player, game and scrupulously honest. There is no reason to suspect that his activity off the field creates any slippage on it. But we are not talking about just playing football anymore. Riggins has achieved mythic proportion in Washington; he is bigger than the game he plays.

At least as large as the football issue is the public responsibility issue. I am one who believes a star athlete does and should have such responsibility to act in a decorous way. Sadly, the star athletes are indulged and generally allowed to behave in a thoroughly selfish manner and even to misbehave without penalty so often that, unless they are particularly secure, grounded men, they easily can come to see themselves as unilaterally above society's rules. The danger there is not that fans -- kids and, to be sure, adults -- will copy the adored athlete's every move, but that they will adopt his attitude, which is, by its nature, self-indulgent and anarchistic.

You often hear it said admiringly of Riggins that he can defuse a ticklish situation with his self-effacing humor. And surely he has done that again here. But the laughter I hear is spectral and hollow, echoing with pathos. And if the comments we hear and the letters we get are any indication, the general public is hearing it the same way. In a city defined by constituencies, John Riggins has one of the largest and most loyal, and in that strange way that fans come to think of their heroes as family, they love him and care deeply about him as a human being. They worry that he is failing himself.