BY GEOFF HOBSON
With Bengals kick returner Tremain Mack in jail for at least the next month and possibly the next year because of a probation violation, the NFL is reviewing if he's eligible for a suspension and/or fine.
Mack was led away in handcuffs to the Hamilton County Justice Center Tuesday after pleading no contest to driving during a period his license has been suspended. Two DUI arrests in 1997 and 1998 landed him in jail for five months.
Hamilton County judge Ralph Winkler said he'll review the case Feb. 7. That gives Mack supporters encouragement because they hope up to 20 negative alcohol tests a month and his hours of community service reflect his commitment to turning his life around.
One of those supporters, Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes, stuck to his original stance since the case began to simmer in mid-November.
That's when Cincinnati television station WLWT-Channel 5 spawned Tuesday's action as cameras filmed Mack driving to and from his home and Paul Brown Stadium several times during the season.
"In no way are the Bengals or Takeo Spikes defending what he did," said Spikes, one of the more vocal players against the TV station. "He has to pay for his mistake and he made a mistake.
"It's just sad," Spikes said. "Morally, who's to say what's right and what's wrong? To try and get somebody out in the open like that, it's just wrong to me. What's really sad is he's been clean for a year and a half and now he's got to go to jail. He had been struggling, but he was making strides. I just pray he comes out of it OK mentally."
Mack, who has been arrested on alcohol-related instances in three states, received a four-game suspension from NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the start of his Pro Bowl season in 1999.
The NFL Player Personal Conduct Policy says, "any covered person convicted of or admitting to a criminal violation (including a plea to a lesser included offense; a plea of. . . no contest. . .) will be subject to discipline as determined by the Commissioner."
With no new charges added Tuesday, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league has to determine if a probation violation means more NFL sanctions. Or, if Mack has already been disciplined for the crime.
But Winkler's review is the item on the front-burner.
"It's hopeful that based on his community service and other positive aspects of his treatment and aftercare that the sentence will be re-considered," said Perry Ancona, Mack's lawyer.
So does defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, the most vocal critic of Channel 5 in the locker room. On Tuesday, Gibson said he knew the judge had to do what he had to do.
"I understand that. He has to pay for his mistake," Gibson said. "As a teammate and a friend, I hope there is a favorable review because he's been clean for so long and he's working through his problems and hopefully he can get on with his life.
"For me, personally, it's a travesty what Channel 5 did," Gibson said. "Who is the moral authority? I can see if he was caught drinking and driving, or if there was an incident. But he's been clean. And they can say, 'Well, we prevented an incident,' but I just don't see it that way."
With Mack's status in doubt, running back Curtis Keaton is the Bengals' kick returner if there's a spot open. Keaton, a fourth-round pick last season, had been hobbled by a foot problem much of the season.
"If he's healthy, Keaton is the guy," special teams coach Al Roberts said Tuesday.
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"He's a running back and brings good vision, brings that explosion. He's fast and at 215 pounds, he's strong, so he's got some assets.
Roberts admitted Mack was nowhere near his Pro Bowl form, when set the Bengals' kick return record and led the AFC with 27.1 yards per return.
Hampered by a tender ankle much of the season, Mack, 26, a four-year safety, had a mediocre season returning kicks. But later in the year he played more on passing situations and drew praise from the coaching staff.
"He was just a different guy from this year over last year," Roberts said. "The ankle wasn't good, and then after (Channel 5 aired the story), that hurt him, too. He's an emotional kid and there's a lot of pressure on him. Always having to walk that narrow straight line.
"Football is his only forum," Roberts said. "He's not a criminal. He has been growing off the field. He has to keep doing it. No matter what happens, I stand by him because like all my players, I see him as a son."
Mack's representatives have said he has been tested 10 to 20 times a month for alcohol since his previous sentence and hasn't had a problem. Ancona also cited Mack's numerous hours of community service.
The Bengals had little to say about Tuesday's events.
"He has to pay a debt to society and we hope he can get beyond this and put it behind him for good," said Bengals President Mike Brown.