CINCINNATI -- There is no easy explanation for this place.
Cincinnati is a cocktail of contradictions, a town too conflicted for easy labeling. Its outside doesn't readily match its inside, making this a real-life Wisteria Lane: What looks like quintessentially normal America seems to have a ragingly weird undercurrent sluicing through it.
It is famously conservative and proudly prudish, yet it launched the porn career of Larry Flynt and once elected Jerry Springer as its mayor. (Springer later ran for governor, and part of his campaign was a TV ad wherein he admitted paying for a hooker -- with a check.)
It counts among its most famous women residents both Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and Marge Schott, who once referred to two African-American Cincinnati Reds as "my million-dollar n------."
It has been called bigoted, segregated and racially regressive, yet what other downtown has a nonprofit hip-hop youth performance center next door to the city ballet? B-boys and ballerinas pass on the sidewalk, one group walking in from the jagged surrounding neighborhood and the other popping out of BMWs from the 'burbs.
It is either America's southernmost Midwestern city or its most Midwestern Southern city, sitting a river's width to the north of the Mason-Dixon Line. One thing it definitely isn't: in step with the rest of Ohio.
It just might be the strangest city in Flyover America.
"I can't explain why it is the way it is," says Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Paul Daugherty. "I don't know why we attract eccentrics."
Daugherty moved here from New York in 1988 and has rarely been without column fodder. That's because the cultural inconsistencies in identity cross over to sports as well.
Cincinnati places a premium on propriety and civility, yet fiercely champions the dishonest (Pete Rose) and the profane (Bob Huggins).
It is part of a legendary football state, yet its biggest collegiate sporting event every year is the Xavier-Cincinnati basketball game.
And it is a place with a low crime rate -- except among its pro football players, who lead the National Football League by a wide margin in recent arrests.
Heading into an NFL draft that has put unprecedented emphasis on "character issues," the Cincinnati Bengals' draft decisions could be more closely scrutinized than any team's. That's what happens when you're dogged by a dirty reputation harder to shake than gum on your shoe.
"One of the ways we're trying to clean this up is through the draft -- drafting good-character guys," says Cincinnati running back Rudi Johnson. "If that means passing some guys up, so be it. We've already learned that doing it the other way didn't work out in our favor."
Doing it the other way, Cincinnati drafted guys such as Chris Henry, Odell Thurman, Frostee Rucker and A.J. Nicholson. Every one of them came with a character red flag that was ignored, and all of them have been arrested since they joined the Bengals.
That hasn't played well on Wisteria Lane. Cincinnati is the oldest of baseball towns, but it is passionate about its NFL team, too. Passionate enough to be pissed off by the run of bad behavior.
"It's kind of an old-fashioned place. I think that's had a big impact on how people look at the Bengals now. It's embarrassing, and people don't like that around here."
There have been 13 Bengals busts since Jan. 1, 2006; and even though it's been nearly four months since the last player got nailed, the wife of a former player has stepped in to fill the crime-blotter void. According to the Enquirer, 51-year-old Jeni Lee Dinkel, wife of former Bengals linebacker Tom Dinkel, entered a not guilty plea last week to charges of having sex with an underage boy in suburban Cincinnati.
Combine that with the eight-game suspension handed out by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to serial Bengals miscreant Henry this month, and you have a sordid story that never seems to stop.
"It comes up in every interview I do," Johnson, the running back, says wearily.
It comes up daily on the streets, too.
A tale of two cities
In the middle of a forbidding urban neighborhood sits an incongruous athletic oasis.
It's the football stadium at Taft High School, a thoroughly modern edifice with high-quality artificial turf surrounded by an all-weather track. Many of the schools in the Cincinnati Public League play their games here. On a perfect spring afternoon last week, the Taft Senators were having track practice.
Mike Martin is one of the assistant coaches. He's also the head football coach at Taft. He's also a former Cincinnati Bengal, a wide receiver for seven seasons in the 1980s who led the NFL in punt returns in 1984.
In five years, Martin has rebuilt Taft football, literally from nothing. The 2001 season was canceled when just five players came out for the team. Since then, he has breathed life into the program and become a powerful, positive influence in his players' lives.
Martin expects to have one of his best teams this fall. He's also hoping he might have a volunteer assistant coach come work with his players -- a guy named Chris Henry, who won't have much to do during the first half of the 2007 NFL season.
Martin has floated the idea to the Bengals' front office about Henry working with Taft while he serves his suspension. Martin says head coach Marvin Lewis was very receptive to the idea. It remains to be seen how receptive Henry is. The Bengals have put him off-limits to the media while he's suspended.
Being around a quietly charismatic guy like Martin might help Henry, who has been arrested four times since Dec. 15, 2005, making him the honorary captain of Team Mug Shot. Being around Martin's players might help, too.
"My guys will keep it real with him," Martin says. "They won't pull any punches. They'll ask him about everything he's been doing. Maybe it'll be good for him to hear it from these guys -- remember where he came from, and see how privileged he is to be in the NFL.
"A lot of these guys want to get where [the Bengals] are. Just listening to their conversations, it's amazing to them that someone would want to throw away such an opportunity."
It should be noted that the majority of the Bengals have seized their opportunity and made a positive impact in the Cincinnati community. But the steady stream of problems has overshadowed those good deeds. And Martin's players aren't shy about saying what they think of the Bengals' legal embarrassments.
"They've been crazy," says Kenneth Trimble, a highly recruited strong safety.
"They're disappointing the fans," says cornerback Ronald Hicks.
"Why they act like that?" asks Ronald's brother, Keyonta Hicks, also a cornerback.
"Most of them," says Darryl Robinson, another corner, with a mixture of amusement and amazement, "act like we do."
From the mean streets to the office suites, the kids aren't the only ones wondering. Bengals alums such as Martin and Reggie Williams are chagrined by the behavior.
"As a Cincinnati Bengals lifetime player, I find myself continually besmirched," says 14-year Cincy linebacker Williams, who was the anti-Chris Henry in his day: an Ivy League grad so respected off the field that he successfully ran for city council. Today, Williams is vice president of Disney's Wide World of Sports, but that executive job has not insulated him from disparaging remarks about the Bengals' character.
"They come up out of the clear blue, at any time," Williams says. "It equally rivals that distasteful era when they weren't winning."
Conservative and uncomfortable
When it was founded in the 1700s on the northern banks of the Ohio River, Cincinnati quickly grew into what has been called America's first inland boomtown. It rapidly became a gateway to the untamed West.
Today, nobody calls this a boomtown. The metro area population is around 2 million, placing it in the top 25 nationally, and there are many major corporations located here. But its residents admit that Cincinnati is as likely to think small as it is to think big: resistant to change, wary of the outside world and happy within its own cultural cocoon.
"From the day I got here [from New York], I was totally struck by how much better this place is than our own people give it credit for," says nine-year Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski.
For comparison's sake to other cities, Cincinnatians might need to get out more. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer says he has neighbors in his suburb whose idea of a vacation is to go downtown and stay in a hotel.
Not even the widespread passion for Ohio State football resonates much in Cincinnati -- the Enquirer doesn't have a Buckeyes beat writer.
And you can forget any kinship with the state's largest city, Cleveland, well to the north.
"Cleveland is an East Coast city," Daugherty says. "This is a Southern city. I'd say it has more in common with Louisville.
"I think Cincinnati is sort of an island unto itself, because it has nothing in common with the rest of the state."
Which seems to be fine with the locals.
"I don't really think of myself as an Ohioan," says Cincy native Tori Meeker, a bartender at the Rock Bottom Brewery downtown. "Cincinnati is very self-contained."
Cincinnati is almost its own nation-state, its life separated from Kentucky by the river and from the rest of Ohio by the I-275 beltway. Provincialism is fairly predictable.
"This is the only city in America where if they ask what school you went to, they don't mean college," says Cincinnati Bearcats basketball coach Mick Cronin, a Queen City native. "They mean high school."
The city basically has two factions to it: the gritty, working-class West Side and the more affluent East Side. Cronin describes the difference in terms of youth sports.
"On the West Side, they play to win," he says. "On the East Side, everyone gets to participate."
Pete Rose is the ultimate West Sider -- the hometown tough guy who made it big. You do that, and the headfirst slides count more with your constituency than the years of lying about betting on baseball. A recent reader poll in the weekly magazine CityBeat said Rose is still the favorite athlete in Cincinnati.
"We're homers," Cronin says, "which explains our affinity for Pete Rose. If the people in this town could vote for Pete to get into the Hall of Fame, he'd get in unanimously."
Similar affection has been extended to another famed-but-flawed hard-ass, Huggins. Certainly, Huggins' winning percentage dictated most of his popularity, but his unpretentious, combative style played well here, too.
"He was perceived as a blue-collar man of the people," Dougherty says. "We love our white-bread, Chris Sabo, Cris Collinsworth, shut-up-and-play, dirty-shirt heroes."
Don't underestimate the "white-bread" part of that quote. Cincinnati has championed several minority sports heroes: Oscar Robertson, Anthony Munoz, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, among others. But it's probably easier to be Carson Palmer in this town than T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
In terms of demographics and lifestyle, this is a long way from New York, Miami, San Francisco and even Atlanta.
There are a lot of adjectives tossed around about Cincinnati: family-friendly, affordable and safe, to name a few. But one word that comes out of every mouth, without fail:
The last time Hamilton County voted Democratic for president was 1964, when the unappealing alternative was Barry Goldwater. The bigfoot AM radio station in town, WLW, is a fire-breathing bastion of right-wing oratory. The personality page on its Web site features 14 white males, led by the divisive Bill Cunningham, who last week ridiculed the emotional, multicultural memorial gathering at Virginia Tech in the wake of the mass murder there.
Cunningham ripped the fact that the first speaker was "some Muslim dude," followed by a Buddhist.
"Was there a Hindu?" he asked on the air. "Did they have a Hindu, too?" Later he lamented the lack of "mainstream, normal stuff."
"It's multiculturalism run amok," Cunningham railed. " It's sad, but it's the way college campuses operate today."
Multiculturalism wasn't real big with Schott -- another Cincinnati native. She was generous with her money and kept Reds baseball affordable for the common folks, but the old German woman was off the charts with her political incorrectness.
Upon her death, Daugherty wrote, "She was Archie Bunker for real, at a time when Archie Bunker was no longer acceptable."
So you wonder how comfortable the city of Bill Cunningham and Marge Schott is for a clubhouse full of affluent, young African-American football players. Race relations historically have been troubled here, though they have calmed considerably after the small-scale riots of 2001 to protest what many in the black community believed to be brutal treatment at the hands of white cops.
"I live up north [of the city], and there are plenty of times I will be followed home [by police]," says Martin, who is black. "One time a guy pulled me over and asked if I'd been drinking. I said, 'Why? Did I do anything wrong?'"
Martin says the cop told him he was swerving. Martin responded that he avoided a pothole, never even leaving his lane.
"You don't have anything to do tonight, do you?" Martin says he told the cop. "He just started laughing and walked back to his car."
So: Are the Bengals who have been arrested for DUI, marijuana possession and other charges being targeted by cops who might let them go in other cities?
"It's more on the person's responsibility, not on the city at all," Johnson says.
He lists all the ways the police and the Bengals front office have tried to help the players avoid trouble: a meeting with the chief; e-mails advising where sobriety checkpoints will be set up; free limousine service from owner Mike Brown.
"What else do you want guys to do?" Johnson says. "How much can they do for you? At some point, you've got to take personal responsibility."
Which brings us back to Chris Henry.
The feel-good story of the year in Major League Baseball is Josh Hamilton, the 25-year-old Reds rookie. Hamilton has become a fixture in the Cincinnati lineup and a local fan favorite after he missed nearly four full seasons because of drug addiction.
Hamilton's suspensions from baseball -- which did not happen on the Reds' watch, or in detriment to the organization -- dwarf the half-season suspension levied against Henry.
So why the radically divergent attitudes in the city? Why is the white baseball player embraced and the black football player scorned?
"This is a totally different deal," Daugherty says. "One guy admitted he messed up and is trying to change his life. The other guy has not showed any remorse.
"We like to knock people down and then pick them up. That's what's happening with Josh Hamilton. They perceive him, rightly or wrongly, to be contrite about what he did.
"There is across-the-board condemnation of Chris."
That's unfair, according to Katie, a dancer at The Foxx gentleman's club in Covington, Ky.
In a puritanical purge in the 1970s, Cincinnati shoved most of the porn outlets across the river into northern Kentucky. They've stayed there. Covington has cleaned up its image and actually has turned its waterfront into a more vibrant area than Cincinnati's, but it still has the gentleman's clubs on its street corners.
And according to its employees, The Foxx is a place Chris Henry has been known to frequent.
"I know Chris," Katie says. "I walk into Chris' house, take my shoes off, get in his refrigerator.
"Chris doesn't have any alcohol in his house. Chris doesn't smoke weed. I just think he's involved with some of the wrong people."
Katie says she met Henry at The Foxx. Cindy, another dancer, says she hasn't seen Henry in her three weeks working there, but was told by a bouncer that the wide receiver tried to come in last week and was turned away at the door for his own good.
On the night Chris Henry allegedly was sent home from The Foxx, fireworks were erupting from Great American Ballpark. They thumped and echoed over the Ohio River in traditional celebration of a Reds victory.
Viewed from the Kentucky side of the river, the smoke from the fireworks formed a hazy halo over the illuminated stadium.
Just down the riverfront at darkened Paul Brown Stadium, there are no halos in sight.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.