SPORTSTALK

Mr. Telephone Man

Why do smartphones make Chris Rainey dumb?

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In the last few years, we have seen a cavalcade of pro-ready talent emerge from University of Florida’s football program. Players like tight-end Aaron Hernandez and wide-receiver Percy Harvin, just to name two, look like they’ll be Pro Bowl candidates for years to come. Perhaps Tim Tebow, despite his often-discussed flaws, has another opportunity ahead of him.

Arguably, the most talented recent ex-Gator skill player, though, is running-back Chris Rainey. For all of his talent, however, character issues have never fully gone away — and they’re center stage again.

On Jan. 10, Rainey — who just concluded an up-and-down rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers — was in Gainesville, which has been a place of highs and lows for the speedy scatback for a few years. Rainey made news for a fight with a girlfriend a couple of years ago, during which he texted her a series of irate messages, culminating with a not-so-veiled threat: “Time to die.”

For obvious reasons, this shocked many who heard about it — even though the recipient of the texts declined to press charges, and the charges were pled down to “misdemeanor stalking.” Rainey was suspended for five games, a penalty that didn’t help his draft status, which went from a likely first-round selection to a fifth-round pick for the Steelers.

The former track star’s ability was never an issue. His judgment? Another matter, but the risk was worth it for the Steelers, who can always use more running backs, considering the nature of their offense, especially when the cold wind whips through Pittsburgh as autumn turns to winter.

Rainey’s speed advantage was not quite as obvious on the pro level as it had been in the SEC, so he accomplished little on the field this season: 100 rushing yards with two touchdowns. For some players, that’s a quarter; for Rainey, it was a season. Despite this underachievement, there wasn’t any reason to think Pittsburgh would let him go after signing him to a four-year contract — that is, until it became clear that Rainey hadn’t changed his ways regarding romantic relationships and anger management.

The incident that led to Rainey’s release on Jan. 10 was reminiscent of the one that got him in trouble in his college days. In the recent mishap, the Gainesville police claimed Rainey and the alleged victim were arguing over Rainey’s cellphone when the woman entered Rainey’s roommate’s vehicle. The Steeler confronted her, pulling her from the vehicle, and — according to witnesses – Rainey slapped her across the face with his open hand.

The woman reportedly ran away, with Rainey giving chase to recover his cellphone. He used his SEC speed to catch up with her and get the bag. Multiple witnesses saw all of this, and that was enough for the Steelers, whose general manager issued a statement: “Under the circumstances and due to this conduct, Chris will no longer be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Story over, right? Not so fast. As it went with Rainey’s 2010 domestic squabble, when his then-girlfriend released a statement saying his actions were “out of character,” to help get the charges reduced, his current girlfriend came forward and said the same thing.

“The incident that occurred today is both troubling and unfortunate,” the victim emailed the judge. “The incident was simply over a book bag with a cellphone in it and possession of this bag. In no way did I feel physically threatened at any time.”

“Over the course of our relationship together, I have never been verbally or physically threatened by Chris Rainey. What happened today was a misunderstanding and should not affect his future in any way,” she continued.

Misunderstandings do happen, of course. But the second such misunderstanding in three years raises many concerns. The first concern: Knowing what's in the public record about this man, why do people continue to date him and issue apologies for his behavior? Because he’s a star?

Folks probably made the same cases for OJ Simpson, Lawrence Phillips, Rae Carruth and any other star athlete who liked to get rough with the women who loved him. It’s appalling that has to happen. It’s appalling he gets away with this stuff, again and again. And it’s appalling that he – for all of his bluster – is yet again having the girlfriend speak for him, instead of stepping up himself.

This likely will blow over. And he likely will be back in the league. SEC Speed. And SEC Stupidity to match.

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