- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

PARIS (AP) - Now that Wayne Rooney and Karim Benzema are scoring goals again for their countries, can we forget, even forgive, allegations that the English and French forwards paid prostitutes for sex?

The answer, unequivocally, is of course not. No amount of on-field success should excuse, gloss over or make us blind to such off-field excesses.

Rooney’s agent and the firm that handles his PR aren’t commenting on the lurid claims from the woman who calls herself “Juicy Jeni.” Quoted in the Sunday Mirror and News of the World tabloids, Jennifer Thompson says Rooney paid for “anything goes” sex sessions last year in a Manchester hotel.

If the goal-scorer and creator for England and Manchester United is embarrassed, bothered or even cares, he is doing a very good job of not showing it. He allowed himself only a quick smile and briefly clenched fists after scoring England’s opening goal in a 3-1 defeat of Switzerland on Tuesday night. Otherwise he showed little emotion. He was a rock during the playing of England’s national anthem, unblinking, his chin jutting out.

Benzema got France’s opening goal in a 2-0 win at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Again, he also has seemed unfazed by allegations from self-described “escort girl” Zahia Dehar that he paid her once for sex, when she was underage.

Benzema’s lawyer Sylvain Cormier denies that the Real Madrid player ever had relations with the woman.

“He has nothing to reproach himself for,” he says.

Here’s hoping that is true. Because this kind of dirt sticks. No amount of great goals will change that. Sports stars do survive scandals, but the admiration we had for them does not.

Look at Tiger Woods. Great golfer but, we now know, also a flawed man and a failure as a husband. He will most likely recover his game and win more trophies, but he will never recover all the esteem he once enjoyed. The sordid cascade of stories about his infidelities left an indelible stain than no amount of golf majors will erase.

The same will be true for Rooney if Thompson turns out to be telling the truth.

Like Woods, Rooney is entitled to privacy. It is a matter for them and them only if, as Thompson claims, he did cheat on his wife, Coleen, when she was pregnant last year with their first son, Kai.

It also is ridiculous to claim that the state of Rooney’s marriage is a matter of public interest because he is a public figure. Don’t kid yourself: Tabloids publish such stories because they sell not because of any supposed crusade for the public good or morals.

Nor does it compute that Rooney is fair tabloid game and owes us all an explanation because he takes, via indirect routes, our money and our attention. Buying a Rooney shirt or one of the products that he endorses doesn’t get you an invite into his marital bed.

But when sports stars and other public figures are caught paying for sex, they perpetuate the noxious notion that women are cheap and disposable commodities. For that, they must be called to account and shamed.

Practically everything about the way the tabloids package and peddle such stories is degrading: the sex described as “romps,” the salacious and pathetic details, the manufactured quotes, the term “hooker,” the video of the woman writhing and wriggling in a bikini, presumably for money, in a photospread that runs with the story to rachet up its titillation factor.

Six years ago, when similar claims were splashed across the newspapers, the then-teenaged Rooney confessed to visiting prostitutes, expressed deep regret and trotted out the excuse that “it was the sort of mistake you make when you are young and stupid,” the BBC and others reported back then.

That explanation won’t work now.

He turns 25 next month so he is no longer that young.

But if he hasn’t learned from previous errors, then he is still stupid.

And no amount of goals could change that.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org