Last week, the general manager of the Washington Capitals said he would not trade any of the four Capitals players who were accused of raping a 17-year-old girl inside a limousine outside a Georgetown bar.

David Poile said other NHL general managers had sounded him out concerning his plans for the four -- Dino Ciccarelli, Geoff Courtnall, Scott Stevens and Neil Sheehy. And Poile advised all petitioners he "wasn't going to be doing anything with them."

Yesterday, after the announcement that a grand jury would not indict any of the players, Poile was joined in a statement by team owner Abe Pollin and President Dick Patrick that concluded by saying, "We expect that all players involved will continue as members of the Washington Capitals."

This must make the coach of the Capitals happy, because the other day Terry Murray said, "I don't want to trade the players." Like everybody else connected to the Capitals, Murray hoped there would be no indictment. "I want to get this behind us and start building again on the positive atmosphere we had at the end of last season," he said.

Of course they want to keep these players. These players are good, the kind who win hockey games -- the kind who win playoff hockey games.

But this issue isn't only about hockey, and it isn't something the Capitals can conveniently get behind them.

A statement issued jointly by the four players yesterday said in part, "The matter is now closed and behind us."

But is it?

According to a grand jury, it wasn't rape. But it was gang sex in the back seat of a car in an alley between adult men and a teenage girl -- however consenting -- and it was tawdry and shameful.

Even if the players are legally innocent, what they did was morally wrong.

Wrong if they participated. Wrong if they watched and didn't try to stop it. Wrong if they stood lookout and allowed it to happen. It was more than bad judgment.

In their statement the players "regret the embarrassment this investigation has caused our families, friends, fans and the Washington Capitals organization." But nowhere do they regret the act, nowhere do they say: We apologize for doing this. It was wrong.

Fortunately the statement by Pollin, Patrick and Poile is more responsible. It says, "We do not condone or excuse the conduct of the players involved." And it goes on to say, poignantly, "Religious tradition emphasizes forgiveness, and we have decided to appeal to Capitals fans and the community at large to find it in their hearts to forgive these players."

This is a difficult appeal to deny. But there is a broad difference between not condoning behavior and not tolerating it.

There are sensitivities to consider. More than one-third of the people who attend Capitals games are women. This has been a particularly unsettling issue for them. Have their feelings toward these players -- and toward this frustratingly silent organization -- been irrevocably altered? What about the notion of the players as role models for children? Parents can't have the same confidence in these players as before. And what of the organization's sensitivity? Given the tenderness of this issue, it's inflammatory to have drafted a player who'd gone through a similar accusation of sexual misconduct.

For the last six weeks Pollin, Patrick and Poile said they were waiting for the judicial process to be completed, then they'd speak out. But long ago they should have expressed regret over the conduct. Many who know Pollin as a moral, religious man -- the reference to "religious tradition" in the management statement surely came from him -- believe he is heartsick over this episode, and wouldn't be comfortable keeping all four players, even if it means tearing apart the center of the first Capitals hockey team to succeed in the playoffs.

I don't expect all four players to continue as members of the Capitals, and I don't think they should. My guess is Poile took a bravado posture to discourage people from thinking he was going to hold a fire sale. "He can't just dump these guys and get nothing back, that would be devastating to the hockey team," said someone familiar with the situation. "He doesn't want to be picked apart."

But this source thought that some of the players would go: "They're going to have to do something with at least a couple of them to show the fans they don't accept what's happened."

Most likely to go is Ciccarelli, who pleaded guilty to indecent exposure while he was a member of the Minnesota North Stars. "You're looking at the guys you can live without, and trying to salvage Scott Stevens," the source said, "because he's going to anchor your defense for the next seven years."

Forgetting any moral consideration, from a sports standpoint it may well be smart to get rid of some of these players. A team can't flourish under the kind of extracurricular scrutiny the Capitals will have. Everywhere the team goes on the road, the four will be targets of derision by fans. There will be an endless appetite for stories about them. Surely the wives and girlfriends of the other Capitals will try to isolate the four. The ripple will be thoroughly divisive. Bear in mind last year's Cincinnati Reds, when Pete Rose was the manager and a fine team was undone by a relentless storm of suspicion. Today's Reds are 9 games up.

Sports has a simplistic tendency to cast life in terms of wins and losses. You may be tempted to see the grand jury's decision not to indict as a victory for the Capitals, a welcome relief, an ending. But what happened in that limousine will reverberate quite a while for many of us -- and for some, the rest of their lives, long after they've stopped counting wins and losses.