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Starkey: Ward's image takes major hit

Georgia, TMZ and Steelers stars. What a terrible combination.

Last offseason, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (dis)graced the cover of TMZ's website, sporting a Satan T-shirt during his ill-fated night on the town in Milledgeville.

Saturday morning, it was receiver Hines Ward who grabbed the salacious site's top billing after a traffic stop in DeKalb County, about 90 miles from Milledgeville. Ward wasn't smiling in the photograph.

Who smiles for a mug shot?

The headline over the photo — "Hines Ward Busted for DUI" — might as well have read "Hines Ward's Image in Tatters."

That doesn't mean Ward is guilty, of course, after he was held on $1,300 bond, posted it and was released. It just means that until his guilt or innocence is determined, his reputation will take a major hit at a point when his Q-rating was at an all-time high.

People who didn't know of Ward even after his Super Bowl XL MVP award became familiar with him through his recent "Dancing With the Stars" triumph. He's one of the hottest celebrities in the country — and if he doesn't beat this charge, he will never be looked at the same.

Nor should he.

Of course, I can already hear people writing this off as no big deal, even if Ward is convicted or pleads no contest. That is a common response to athlete DUI arrests. As Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland told 93.7 The Fan earlier this baseball season, after troubled Tigers star Miguel Cabrera was arrested for DUI, "I think most people will understand. It happens to a lot of people on a daily basis."

Yes, and a lot of those people are killing a lot of innocent victims.

Tell the family of one of those victims that DUIs aren't a big deal. About 12,000 people in this country die annually in DUI-related accidents, according to the website drinkinganddriving.org.

Ward, if he was driving under the influence, should have known better. Call a limo. Hire a driver. Use the "Safe Ride Solutions" program, in which NFL players can make a simple call to have somebody drive them home in their car. Or just consider what some of your colleagues have done.

Former St. Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little was driving drunk when he smashed into a car and killed a woman in 1998. Then-Cleveland Browns receiver Donte Stallworth was driving under the influence when he killed a pedestrian in 2009.

A 2010 study in the San Diego Union-Tribune pegged drunk driving as the NFL's most oft-committed offense. It's a growing problem in Major League Baseball, as well. The Union-Tribune study reported that more than one NFL player per month has been arrested for DUI since 2000.

Here's hoping Ward is found innocent, that his business manager's assertion that Ward was not impaired, is true.

If not, Ward will never be looked at the same.

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