Cheaters prosper. Just watch San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman this week as he cavorts across the sun-kissed practice fields as the AFC...

Cheaters prosper.

Just watch San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman this week as he cavorts across sun-kissed practice fields during the AFC’s preparations for Saturday’s Pro Bowl in Honolulu.

Cheaters prosper.

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As the trade winds float like whispers, riffling the blades of grass underneath Merriman’s feet, ask yourself what kind of message the NFL is sending by allowing Merriman to play in its all-star exhibition.

Merriman cheated his way to Honolulu. At midseason, he was suspended for four games for steroid use.

He took performance-enhancing drugs that enhanced his performance so much it made him one of the best linebackers in the game. Shouldn’t that be enough to keep him off the field?

He got caught. He got rewarded.

Cheaters prosper.

Since it’s too late to keep him off the field, I propose the NFL keep him on the field.

Every player wants to go to the Pro Bowl. No player wants to play in the Pro Bowl.

Nobody wants to take more hits and risk injuries in a game that means nothing, after a season filled with pain.

So the league should make Merriman play every defensive down. It should mandate that he play on every special team.

Make him part of the wedge on kickoffs. Make him the gunner on punts. Make him hold on field goals and extra points. Heck, make him return kicks.

Run him ragged in the midday heat. Make him wish he had never flown to Honolulu.

Because he doesn’t belong in Honolulu.

And make sure Merriman, who still refuses to admit he broke the rules, blaming his failed test on a tainted supplement, is the last cheater to play in this game.

League commissioner Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw, NFL Players Association executive director, are expected to announce soon that players who violate the league’s substance-abuse policy will be banned from the 2008 Pro Bowl.

It is the right decision, but it comes one player too late.

The NFL has a cheater in the Pro Bowl, but it won’t take a public-relations hit for this. The NFL is Teflon. It markets teams, not players. So when all-stars go wild, it doesn’t take the PR punishment that, say, the NBA takes.

The NBA, which markets its stars and not its star teams, is suffering from an image problem because a few — very few — of its players have had problems with the law.

Even the smallest transgressions stick to the NBA like static cling, but nobody worries about an image problem in the NFL.

Only in the Teflon League would Ray Lewis play a role in Sunday’s endless pre-Super Bowl gabfest, treated like a pundit on one of the Sunday political chat shows.

In 2000, Lewis, another perennial Pro Bowl linebacker, avoided a murder charge and possible jail time by agreeing, after a plea bargain, to plead guilty to a charge of misdemeanor obstruction of justice.

He testified against his two co-defendants and was placed on 12 months probation.

NFL players do wrong, but it appears the league can do no wrong.

The Cincinnati Bengals are the closest thing football will have to the movie “The Longest Yard,” Nine Bengals were arrested in nine months. Where was the outrage?

Chicago defensive lineman Tank Johnson was allowed to play in the Super Bowl this season, even though police raided his home in December and found three handguns, a rifle, two assault weapons and more than 500 rounds of ammunition.

It was his third run-in with police since the former Washington player joined the Bears in 2004. He should have been deactivated and told to come back to the Bears when he figured out his life.

But Chicago’s defense already was missing Tommie Harris and Mike Brown and Johnson, despite his legal troubles, suddenly was too valuable to let the possession of a couple of assault rifles slow him down.

Even with charges pending, a judge allowed him out of the state and into the Super Bowl.

Such is life in the Teflon League.

I think about this faux-pristine image of the NFL whenever I get an e-mail from a reader declaring his dislike for the NBA and calling the players a bunch of “tattooed thugs.”

It is the image the Sonics are fighting as they argue for a new arena. And just as the NFL’s Teflon image is unreal, the NBA’s image is unfair.

A generation ago, a young Andre Agassi — in a camera commercial — told us, “Image is everything.”

The NFL has managed its image so that even the most egregious sins are forgiven.

Shawne Merriman plays in the Pro Bowl. Cheaters prosper.

Where’s the outrage?

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com