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A few words in defense of the villainous Robin Givens

Did I miss something? Robin Givens is the most reviled person in sports, unseating the previous champ, George Steinbrenner. Her popularity is dipping into the Ayatollah Khomeini range, and she has become the punchline of any joke about greed, duplicity or unbridled evil. She is the woman America loves to hate, but I don't get it.

The Givens-Mike Tyson drama has, with each succeeding car crash, lawsuit and exchange of insults, provided ever-more macabre entertainment, and it may not be over yet. But while my card has them even on points for offensive behavior, most observers have Givens as the overwhelming winner. Why is she the villain, while her heavyweight husband is viewed as the injured innocent?

Ask a random sampling of sports fans to describe what is so terrible about Givens, and you'll get a variety of answers, including:

•She is obviously much smarter and more sophisticated than he is. In other words, what could she possibly see in him besides his money? Call me crazy, but except for his line of work—beating up people—and possibly his need for cosmetic dentistry, Tyson can come across as quite charming and even lovable.

•She interfered in his relationship with his manager, Bill Cay ton. Wifely meddling in ring matters is anathema to old-line boxing guys, but from here it simply looks as if she persuaded her husband to renegotiate a more lucrative contract.

•She tricked Tyson into marrying her by claiming to be pregnant. C'mon. When was the last time this ploy worked?

•She called him scary and a manic depressive on network television. Givens may have been undiplomatic in discussing her spouse so frankly on national TV—and she apparently was inaccurate in her psychiatric diagnosis—but Tyson more than got even by later describing her to a newspaper reporter as "the slime of the slime."

•She said she didn't want any money but then she sued him for $125 million. Let's see now. Givens gives up a chance at a hefty divorce settlement, then files a dubious libel suit. If nothing else, this rebuts the much-smarter-than-he-is argument.

•He was in love with her, but she didn't love him. Is there ever a reliable source for this kind of statement? Why is Tyson granted the insanity defense and not Givens? Nonetheless, people who have never laid eyes on either of them will state this with complete conviction.

•She's a lousy actress. Nobody seemed to hold that against Vanna White after seeing her in The Goddess of Love.

•She allows her mother, Ruth Roper, too much say in her life, and she hired a flamboyant divorce lawyer. Is this worse than relying for counsel on, say, Donald Trump and Don King?

•She lied on her rèsumè. Tyson used to mug people. Nobody's perfect.

Givens's detractors will say that while individually none of the above-mentioned failings is a high crime, together they describe a really rotten person. Sorry, but it doesn't add up that way to me.

Although it is tempting to dismiss the Tyson-Givens affair as low comedy, the vehemence of the attacks on Givens is disturbing. Nor is she the only beautiful actress involved with an athlete who has been subjected to the slings and arrows of the press and sports fans. For instance, in the December issue of Esquire, Mike Lupica, a New York Daily News sports columnist, makes predictions for 1989. One of them: "[A new TV] show will be called The Gold-Digging Girls and will star Robin Givens, Janet Jones (Mrs. Wayne Gretzky), and Tatum O'Neal (Mrs. John McEnroe). The story will revolve around three mediocre young actresses who become big stars simply by marrying high-profile millionaire athletes. Each week they will meet and compare magazine covers, party invitations, and the rare job opportunities."

That's tame compared with some of the rantings by Canadian newspapers about "Jezebel Janet" after Gretzky went from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, a move wrongly thought to have been caused by Jones. Rushing to their defense like this is as insulting to the athletes as it is to the women. It implies that they're too dumb to realize their careers and personal lives are being destroyed by female predators.

A swirl of nasty rumors and suspicions surrounds the Tyson-Givens mess. In sorting them out, it helps to keep in mind a few things:

•Sometimes we fall deeply in love with the wrong people. This happens even to those of us who aren't stupid or evil.

•It's tough enough to gauge a marriage when you're half of the couple in question. It's well-nigh impossible to judge what's going on from the outside.

•When sportswriters start talking about love and marriage, at least one of your eyebrows should automatically rise.