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There can be no redemption without contrition, no rehabilitation without an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
Therein lies the problem with Luke Heimlich, the Oregon State pitcher who has a flamethrower for a left arm and a sexual assault conviction for molesting his niece when she was 6 and he was 15.
As his senior season winds down, Heimlich has been cast as the central figure in a morality play. Now 22, he is the star pitcher for the co-No. 1-ranked team in the country and a potential pick in next month's Major League Baseball draft. He's completed his probation for his heinous crime and, as far as can be determined, done everything the courts asked to satisfy the terms of his sentence.
He is, from a legal perspective, entitled to move on with his life, to go to school and get a job.
But what do we do with someone who is only half willing to play the part? Heimlich has been a a voluntary participant in stories that portray him as a sympathetic figure — or, at least, raise the idea that he could be one — but only to a point.
Despite his guilty plea to one felony count of molesting and a handwritten statement that "I admit that I had sexual contact" with the girl, Heimlich insisted in recent interviews with The New York Times and Sports Illustrated that he had done nothing wrong. That this was all a colossal misunderstanding, and his only sin was in trying to spare his niece and family the pain and trauma of a trial.
"Nothing ever happened," he told The Times, "so there is no incident to look back on."
That's a much different tone than Heimlich took last year, after his conviction first came to light. In a statement announcing a leave of absence from the team, Heimlich said he had "taken responsibility for my conduct" as a teenager. When he withdrew from the College World Series, he did so in part to spare "even more unwanted attention to an innocent young girl."
He then went silent, saying nothing more until the interviews with The Times and SI.
The cynic can point to the draft, and ask — rightly — if Heimlich is simply trying to salvage his baseball career. A projected top-50 pick last year, he went undrafted after his criminal history was revealed, and SI quoted one unnamed general manager who said that, in his mind, nothing has changed.
Heimlich, who leads the country with a 13-1 record and is fifth with 129 strikeouts, is expected to make his final regular-season start at home Thursday night when Oregon State hosts UCLA.
There is nothing America loves more than stories of redemption, particularly when they involve sports heroes. Look at Michael Vick, Alex Rodriguez, Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps. Heimlich would no doubt like to add his name to the list and seems to expect his proclamation of innocence to be taken as the final word.
Yet the girl's mother remains certain the abuse occurred, so specific were her daughter's details of it. Heimlich's older brother, the one who initially alerted authorities, still doesn't talk to him.
Heimlich might be a phenomenal pitcher, but how can we know the same holds true of him as a person? In short, we can't.
"Your behavior matters," said Brenda Tracy, who has become the most prominent advocate against sexual violence in college athletics after being gang raped by then-Oregon State football players in 1998.
"It's great that you run fast," Tracy added, "but it tells us nothing about your character."
There are sides to every story but only one truth, and in this case it's that Heimlich pleaded guilty to a horrendous crime. Yes, he has served his sentence and is entitled to put this ugly chapter of his life behind him. But redemption only comes with remorse and acknowledgment of accountability, two things Heimlich has not shown.
By saying he did nothing wrong in the first place, Luke Heimlich is not asking for a second chance.
Why, then, should we be willing to give him one?
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