Can we summon a little sympathy for Zeus, please?

Come on, let's cut Orlando Brown, all 350 violent pounds of him, a little slack. Yes, the Cleveland Browns tackle woofs about how he loves to "hurt people" and "see them bleed." He's a huge man with a bad temper who has spent years cultivating an image as an NFL intimidator. Once, after learning he'd been chosen the ninth-dirtiest player in football, he was miffed. Why wasn't he ranked higher?

A prime candidate for empathy? Hardly. Still, how bad is your luck when, after surviving seven years in the trenches, you get hit in an open eye by a ref's penalty flag? At the moment, Brown is in a Cleveland hospital "scared to death" he may have permanent damage to the sight in his right eye.

Respect for authority in sports is absolutely essential. Every official in every game needs to feel that, physically, he is completely safe from the anger of any athlete. Especially one such as Brown, who makes his millions in the rawest style. NFL players can't be allowed to knock down officials deliberately, the way Brown shoved wiry referee Jeff Triplette to the ground Sunday.

Still, every once in a while in sports we are faced with a set of circumstances that are so bizarre, so one-in-a-million, so genuinely "extenuating" that we should have the decency to apply common sense, not just the letter of the law.

What if somebody a few yards away threw a three-ounce object--akin to a rock--and hit you square in the eye with it? You never saw it coming and didn't even look away. As the initial shock passed and the excruciating pain hit, would you think straight? As you realized you might be badly hurt, as your mind flashed to your blind father, might you not walk up to the person who hurt you and shove him down--even though he did it by accident? "Look what you did to me!"

Maybe you would. Maybe you wouldn't. But would you expect to see a phone-in poll on national TV asking whether you should be suspended from the NFL for six months, a year or even two years? For a shove?

Brown has apologized profusely, saying in a statement: "My actions . . . were based upon an incredible amount of pain, which affected my judgment. This situation was very scary due to my father's blindness and having to deal with that for many years. . . . Those facts do not justify pushing an official. I regret what happened a great deal. Nothing like this will ever happen again."

When considering what the NFL should do to the 6-foot-7 player called Zeus, put yourself in the shoes of the Washington native, who played for H.D. Woodson High School. Actually, Brown probably is not wearing shoes right now. He is in his hospital bed, worrying about his "impaired vision" and "blood present in the anterior chamber" of his eye. Yesterday, his condition was "unchanged." Brown's vision has always been poor, with a family tendency to glaucoma.

Only three players in league history have seriously laid hands on a ref, as Brown did: Don Burroughs ('63), Monty Stickles ('68) and Steve Wisniewski ('96). Burroughs and Stickles were suspended for one game and Wisniewski was fined $20,000. However, none deliberately flattened the man, as Brown did Triplette. The feeling here is that the NFL should suspend Brown for one game, largely as a symbolic gesture. His attack may have been a bit worse than the others, but so was his provocation. Brown won't be able to play by Sunday anyway. So, only money is at issue.

The NFL shouldn't fine Brown more than $10,000 (the minimum), on top of his docked game salary. Instead of focusing on criticism and punishment, fans and the NFL should pity Zeus and cross their fingers that he won't end up with permanent damage. After all, he and his eye are the real victims, far more than the NFL's law and order.

Instead of focusing on Brown, the NFL should re-examine the way its refs fire their flags around. Not so long ago, plenty of NFL penalties were measured from "the point of the foul." So, throwing the flag to indicate the location of the infraction was important. Refs were told to tape a few ounces of popcorn seed into their flag. However, if they preferred a sack of BBs, that was okay, too. Triplette used the heavier, harder BBs.

These days, far fewer calls require that a flag actually be thrown. Dropping it or tossing it harmlessly in the air would do just as well. Ironically, in his first three years in the NFL, Triplette was a back judge--a position that actually requires that flags be thrown fairly long distances to mark the spot of pass interference fouls. This year, he became a referee. On the Brown play (a penalty against a different Cleveland lineman), Triplette could have simply dropped his flag, not thrown it.

Many players create an image that helps them on the field. Since his rookie year Brown has made a saga of his D.C. childhood, saying the name of his home town means "Death Certificate" to him. For example, he has told of young gunmen coming into a church and shooting up the corpse of one of his relatives as it lay in the coffin for a memorial service. If you want more hair-raising tales of D.C. in the '80s, he's got 'em. Who else gets car-jacked by gun-toting 13-year-olds?

Now, that menace-to-society persona may work against him as the NFL decides his penalty. It shouldn't. Quite a bit of it is probably smoke.

"I've known Orlando since he was 13," said H.D. Woodson Coach Bob Headen, who has developed 12 NFL players. "He always respected authority--both coaches and teachers. He's always been a right guy. He wasn't that tough as a kid and where he lived was not that rough. He just does that [talking] to make [opponents] think he's tough.

"Orlando has always been an upright guy who comes back to school, talks to the kids for an hour, signs for everybody, gives away football shoes that have been worn [only] a couple of times to the players."

Still, Brown's reputation for temper can't be undeserved. There are too many Zeus legends. Nonetheless, Headen says Brown is more than just thunderbolts.

"Everybody's talking about Orlando. What's going to happen to the guy who hit him in the eye? Suppose Orlando can't play any more. What then?" Headen said. "Everybody has apologized. Everybody feels bad. The whole thing should be dropped. Let it go. People are forgetting: Orlando's the person who's been hurt."