It's tough to sideline proven winners for long

Charlie Sheen and Ben Roethlisberger might seem an unlikely pair. Yet the “Two and a Half Men” star and Super Bowl quarterback both demonstrate an old truth: Bad behavior is seldom enough to keep proven winners sidelined long.

Sheen’s latest tabloid run-ins and reported excesses that landed him in rehab have yielded renewed hand-wringing over whether the actor, or CBS’ hit sitcom, will be irrevocably damaged by negative publicity. Such speculation requires a kind of willful amnesia, though, if the history of stars in entertainment or sports is any indication.

For his part, Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension at the start of the season for violating the league’s personal-conduct guidelines, after Georgia officials opted not to prosecute him for an alleged sexual assault. Then again, the Pittsburgh star actually came away relatively clean compared with the NFL’s other standout Pennsylvania quarterback, Michael Vick, who served time for torturing and slaying dogs while operating an illegal dog-fighting ring.

The notion that highly paid entertainers, in whatever field, don’t always handle wealth and celebrity well is hardly new. Still, in the frenzy of reporting on talent like Sheen — which can make NPR emulate TMZ — the “Can his series survive?” reporting appears particularly misguided.

Indeed, “Two and a Half Men’s” most recent original episode drew a season-high 15.5 million of viewers. With numbers like that, others might be tempted to encourage their leads to act up just a little — prompting ABC latenight host Jimmy Kimmel to joke about Fox launching a show called “Crack Dad,” starring Andy Dick.

Once something or someone has established a bond with fans, it’s difficult to alienate them — even if they insist that this time, really, is the last straw.

This truth goes beyond tabloid behavior. Sports leagues and Hollywood have endured work stoppages in the past and almost inevitably rebounded. Long before Sheen, stars from Roseanne and Brett Butler to Kiefer Sutherland weathered scandals, usually without inflicting permanent harm to their popular series.

Are there exceptions to this calculus? Certainly, especially if the performer’s popularity is rooted in a certain image — think Pee-wee Herman — that makes returning to work particularly awkward. Yet even Mel Gibson, frankly, would likely be bankable again if cast in the sort of vehicle (think “Lethal Weapon 5,” or “Mad Max IV”) that initially made him successful.

It’s possible to completely torpedo one’s career, in other words, but not easy. For every Dave Chappelle — who abruptly walked away from a hit Comedy Central program — there’s a Martin Lawrence, once arrested wandering in traffic with a handgun, and destined to turn up soon in his latest “Big Momma’s House” sequel.

Of course, with so many variables to consider, it’s often difficult to draw direct lines in such cases. Did the last writers strike deal a blow to the networks? Given steady ratings erosion, that’s hard to say. Intuition suggests the disruption didn’t help, but cries of “A pox on both their houses” didn’t prevent people from embracing “Modern Family” or “Glee” in the strike’s wake.

The NFL and NBA certainly look determined to test the depths of their fans’ goodwill in 2011, with owners and players engaged in saber-rattling over new contract negotiations. Both sides’ efforts to elicit public sympathy look like a waste of time, as millionaire players squaring off opposite billionaire owners presents a starker Haves vs. Have-more scenario than writers and actors (many of whom are marginally employed) against studios.

Still, those predicting the NFL might endure serious damage by allowing its negotiations to interrupt play aren’t monitoring the recent surge in NBA ratings, which slumped after a strike-shortened 1998-99 season. Whatever fans might say at the time, they tend to be surprisingly forgiving toward the programs, performers and pastimes they love.

It’s a good rule of thumb, naturally, not to tempt the fates or mess with success, and any savvy manager would prefer to avoid finding out whether seismic events will upset a profitable franchise. If CBS had its druthers, Sheen would spend nights at home quietly counting his cash, not trashing hotel rooms and cavorting with porn stars.

Nevertheless, an adage popularized by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis identifies the surest formula to facilitate recovery from any scandal or public-relations snafu.

Just win, baby.

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