Next week NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue could announce whether Dexter Manley will be allowed back in the NFL on Nov. 18, one year to the day after he was banned for testing positive for drugs a third time.

As a three-time loser, Dexter was banned for life -- with the provision that he could apply for reinstatement after one full year.

Dexter has applied.

Tagliabue should allow him back in. (And the Redskins should welcome him back with open arms, but more about that part later.)

Given the repetition of Dexter's offense, some people will surely ask: Why?

But the more appropriate question is: Why not? Obviously, it is a ban for life in name only, or there wouldn't be a provision for reinstatement. So, as written, the rule is designed to encourage the player to rehabilitate, and to give the commissioner discretionary power to reward sincere rehabilitation. It is a forgiving policy, a rose in a fisted glove.

According to his attorney, Bob Woolf, Dexter has been tested three times a week since last November, and has passed every test. Demonstrably, he's living a drug-free life, which is one of the NFL's stated goals for its players. He's a success story. Why wouldn't you welcome him back?

Woolf said yesterday that he's "very optimistic" Dexter will be reinstated. "There's no reason not to," Woolf said. "He's cooperated fully. He's made every effort. . . . You'll see. It's a different Dexter."

Some people will be skeptical. They will say that it isn't good for Dexter to go back to playing football -- he's vulnerable and the old temptations will be right there in harm's way: Forget football, Dexter, and get on with the rest of your life. You'll be a better man for it.

This is a pile of patronizing garbage. How easy it must be to tell somebody else to get on with his life, as if it is a household chore or a homework assignment. How easy it must be to tell somebody else to pass up $500,000 a year and do what, sell shoes? Dexter's 32 years old. He doesn't have many NFL years left. This is what he does for a living, play football. If he is drug free, why would you have him become a stone mason instead? Who wrote the decree that we should punish addicts for their own good?

I've not read that pro athletes are more prone to drug abuse than any other group in the culture. This notion that in recovery they should be kept away from the limelight and the celebrity trappings they once enjoyed is dangerously sanctimonious. It assumes a higher rate of recidivism for athletes than, say, nurses or insurance salesmen. The fact is that an addict is in harm's way wherever he is. Addiction is a personal problem. Ultimately, you can't shield someone from himself.

Woolf is banking on Tagliabue being sympathetic to Dexter because Tagliabue is a Redskins fan and season ticket holder, and he appreciates Dexter's popularity here. This is risky business, supposing preferential treatment. But those of us who've watched Dexter for nine years do have a special feeling for him. In a city where Redskins are revered like gods, Riggo and Dexter stand a bit taller than the rest. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't like Dexter, who doesn't think of Dexter as a member of the family. Who else did we root for as much, suffer with as much, exult with as much? Who else shared his life with us as completely? From the mohawk-wearing Doctor D, to the blustery vow to ring Danny White's clock, to the spitting, uh, sneezing, to the debate with Mike Ditka over the size and shape of each other's IQ, to the courage it took to stand up before Congress and the country and admit he couldn't read. He is so enormously lovable, such an irrepressible, spontaneous burst of life. Dexter, Dexter, Dexter, how we miss your smile and your outrageousness.

It seems clear from the way they duck the issue of Dexter's possible return that the Redskins do not want him. If they did, they would say so -- they've had plenty of opportunity.

This is sad, because Dexter wants to play here again. And heaven knows, the Redskins could use his enthusiasm, even if he did, sometimes, get carried away.

But more than sad, it is shortsighted. Dexter Manley is a professional pass rusher. The Redskins are desperately seeking one to be a bookend for Charles Mann, who is double- and triple-teamed now, and wouldn't be if Dexter were on the other end. In the only games the Redskins have played this season against teams with winning records, the games that tell you if you have any legitimate claim to contention -- two against the Giants, one against the 49ers -- the Redskins have a total of two sacks, and one occurred when Phil Simms dropped down and curled up fetally to protect an ankle. This isn't a good pash rush. This is a hole in the armor.

Dexter can help, and he'd love to. When he was drug free, he was a starter and, in 1986, a Pro Bowl player. He would like the chance to be that again. If the commissioner of the NFL decides that he deserves that chance, shouldn't the Redskins give it to him?

We're looking at a happy ending here.

Let's not close our eyes.