National Columnist

Steve Smith donates to Aurora victims, but he's still a bad guy ... right?

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People might have to take a more nuanced look at Steve Smith, weighing the good and the bad. (AP)  
People might have to take a more nuanced look at Steve Smith, weighing the good and the bad. (AP)  

Steve Smith was one of those decisions we had already made, like when you pick out a new appliance or repaint your kitchen. You do it, and you move on -- and whatever you do, you don't look back. That's how we treat famous sports people. We make a decision on their character and we move on. Joe Paterno, for example, is good.

Steve Smith, wide receiver of the Panthers? He's a typical trash-talker with an atypical mean streak, having clocked two Carolina teammates at practice -- one in 2002, another in 2008 -- breaking both their noses and sending one to the hospital for two days. Steve Smith is bad.

Only, a bad guy doesn't do what Steve Smith just did.

Steve Smith, puncher of teammates and talker of trash, donated $100,000 to the victims of the July 20 shooting in Aurora, Colo. Twelve people were killed and 58 were injured, and those injured people will have major medical bills. Smith wanted to help with that.

So maybe he's not a bad guy. No, wait, we already decided he is a bad guy. So what do we do now? Where do we go?

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The way it works is, we like our famous athletes the way we see them on television -- two-dimensional, easy to see and easy to peg. We're lazy, is what we are. We're lazy but we're smart, our brain more adaptive than any computer, because our brain doesn't just take the facts and reach a conclusion. Our brain takes the facts and twists them to meet the conclusion we've already reached.

So with this Steve Smith development -- the guy gave $100,000 to strangers in another time zone -- we have two choices. Either alternative allows us to pretend Smith is like that Frigidaire in our egg-white kitchen: right where we thought he was. Same guy. Same jerk.

The alternatives are easy. Did you pick either one? You can ignore what he did, or you can undermine his motives. I mean, really -- who donates $100,000 and then tells the world about it? Bush-league move, Smith. You didn't give that money because you wanted to help. You gave that money because you wanted to be seen helping. We're onto you, Smith. Same guy, different tactic.

That's one way of looking at it.

Here's another: Steve Smith gave $100,000 to hurting people in another community because he knows that could have been him. Or his kid. See, on the night of July 20, when a gunman walked into a movie theater in Colorado for the midnight viewing of The Dark Knight Rises, Smith's teenage son was in a movie theater in North Carolina for the midnight viewing of The Dark Knight Rises. Different state, but that's how thin the line between life and death can be. A lunatic shows up in Aurora; what if that lunatic lived in Charlotte? You just never know. Anyway, Smith heard about the Aurora massacre and didn't just feel relief -- he felt empathy. All those people, dead or injured. All those parents, grieving.

Smith is a parent, too. Two-dimensional? Not this guy. He has been the best player in Panthers history, and he'll be a legit Hall of Fame candidate, and he has spent many an offseason coaching his kids in soccer. Not in the backyard, but on the local team. Steve Smith coaches kids in soccer. You bring the kid, he'll bring the orange wedges. Complicated guy, this guy, and that was before he donated $100,000 to the Aurora victims and had his agent announce the move with a press release. Why give money and then talk about it? Smith talked about why he talked about it.

"Economic times are tough right now and [my family] has the means to do it," Smith said. "We have a chance to lead and hopefully other people will see that. People get prideful and say, 'Hey, this guy did that. Why don't I do more?' ... I don't think it's a publicity job, I think it's a chance for people to think about: 'What are you here for? Are you here to store up your treasures or are you going to give it to people who are obviously in need?'"

Parse that statement for meaning, for selfishness, if you want -- but not me. I've been there with other guys, done that. I've questioned why Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski does so much for others, but tends to put out a press release to announce it. Why would I question such a thing? Probably because I had already decided not to like Coach K, and how can you not like someone who does so much for so many? That would make me tiny, and I'm not tiny, so it must be his fault. He's the one who keeps putting out press releases (technically, Duke puts out those press releases ... same thing), so obviously he's doing nice stuff for others just to win the rest of us over. Not gonna work, Coach K. I see what you're up to.

No, I don't. Shame on me for questioning his motives, even if I did it as quickly -- maybe no one will notice -- as putting it in a single sentence of a column about Coach K's positives and negatives. I wrote that column in 2004. I still remember it. Why? Because over the years I've decided that sentence was wrong, unfair, and it feels bad to be unfair.

So I won't do it now with Smith. Question his motives? Not me. Ignore it? Can't do that either. The Aurora shooting was the ugliest thing to happen in this country in a long, long time -- and an NFL player responded with something beautiful. Can't ignore that.

So if I can't rationalize it and I can't ignore it, that leaves me in the same spot as a lot of you:

What do we make of Steve Smith?


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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