You can say race doesn’t matter, but a look at how we treat the screw-ups of Josh Hamilton vs. Josh Howard indicates otherwise.

Josh I has 26 tattoos, some of which are demons.

Belying a stable, middle-class upbringing, he has a résumé littered with revolving-door drug and alcohol rehab stints. He's a former crackhead who's admitted to driving drunk, getting high and not having the faintest idea what he might have done or where he might have done it on countless foggy last nights. He recently—only after photos surfaced on the Internet, mind you—confessed to a boffo binge in January in a Tempe tavern that ended up with him drunk, shirtless, covered in whipped cream and having his crotch massaged by three semi-dressed women, none of them his wife. In the eight months between incident and enlightenment, he continued selling his autobiography—Beyond Belief—and telling his motivational tale of born-again sobriety.

Josh II also has tattoos, including one of his grandmother's name. His childhood included a father walking out immediately after his birth and his severely bowed legs being broken below the knees and reset twice before age 2. He had an uncle killed in a robbery, a friend murdered and a sister jailed for, among other things, spitting on a cop. He's guilty of handing out birthday party fliers during a playoff series, admitting to smoking marijuana, getting arrested for drag racing and spewing out a vulgar dissin' of the national anthem at a charity flag football event.

The sagas of both Joshes sparked emotional feedback to the Dallas Observer and my Sportatorium sports blog over the last year. A sampling:

Josh I: "American hero"..."more respect for him than ever"..."never said he was perfect. But he is forgiven"..."Give the guy a break. He screwed up, but got right back on track."

Josh II: "He's just a dumb coon nigger"..."Hanged"..."I wish he'd go back to throwing spears in Africa"..."I'll never watch him play. Ever."

Josh I, of course, is Texas Rangers' two-time All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton. Josh II, obviously, is Dallas Mavericks' former All-Star forward Josh Howard. None of their transgressions has hurt anyone other than themselves. And, relatively speaking, Howard shoots a basketball on par with how Hamilton hits a baseball.

So what gives? While Howard incited harsh criticism from yours truly and from readers—vitriolic backlash that would make even David Duke blush—Hamilton's immunity has been perplexing. You can try to ignore, dismiss or simply deny the truth, but the reality is that Hamilton comes equipped with two major antidotes in his battle for a pardoned public image:

Religion. Race.

Cringe, or even exit onto Naïve Lane if you want, but the reasons Hamilton skates are his white skin and his Jesus shield. Sorry, but our mostly white media—yep, the finger is pointing at me—and mostly white fan base treat Hamilton more favorably than Howard.

But what if Josh Hamilton was black? And Josh Howard was white? For starters, Hamilton would be immediately portrayed by the media—Me? Guilty as charged.—as a "thug" or a "crackhead punk" while Howard would be "misunderstood" or "outspoken." Howard would also, apparently, have his sins rinsed by religion.

From Robert Tilton to Quincy Carter we've seen our share of religious hypocrisy. Generally when athletes start quoting scripture we roll our eyes—something about the higher we praise Christians the bigger the bruises when they fall. Hamilton's latest pothole has invoked within me a blend of sympathy and cynicism. But to most, not even a dash of disillusion.

Second chances may be color blind. But we aren't.

Human beings tend to identify with people who look like them or share similar environments. Doesn't mean we're all racists. But we are all racial. We're easily manipulated by religion and readily influenced by color. All things equal, we'll side with our own.

Depending on where you live or what you read, there remains segregation in sports. Around these parts, similarly temperamental black players are "volatile" and white players are "fiery." Right, Terrell Owens?

As it is, Hamilton is the most beloved recovering crackhead on the planet. He's somehow the victim; addiction the villain. His story is so touching, so good, that we're moved to treat his comeback from a self-inflicted mess as some noble triumph. What, Marlon Byrd has never been tempted?

In fact, I've been criticized for referring to Hamilton as, among other things, a hypocrite. Even though he's a man who used to do A, promised to do B, but has again been caught doing A, Hamilton is somehow Teflon. Even though hypocrite is his word, not mine.

From a July 2008 story in The New York Times: "If I didn't (stay clean and sober)," Hamilton said, "I'd be the biggest hypocrite in the world."

Apparently Hamilton also forgot the evangelical virtues about being honest and forthcoming.

From his August 8 press conference in Anaheim in response to the incriminating photos that would work seamlessly in credits for The Hangover: "I don't feel like I'm a hypocrite. I feel like I'm human."

At that point, isn't it hypocritical to deny being a hypocrite?

If Hamilton was black, I fear the focus wouldn't have so quickly and smoothly shifted back onto baseball.

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