CINCINNATI (AP) -A year ago, it was unthinkable.
Fans were invited recently to exchange their Chad Johnson jerseys for minor league hockey tickets. Nineteen fans accepted the offer, and another gladly relinquished a Chad bobblehead.
A small number, of course. But the fact that anyone would even think of holding such a promotion underscores how far Johnson's image has slipped in the last few months.
``We're trying to raise awareness of ourselves,'' said Cincinnati Cyclones publicity director John Hamel. ``Certainly now he's a huge target and the center of discussion here in Cincinnati. What better way to tie ourselves to it?''
Johnson has changed from the Cincinnati Bengals' most beloved player into their most divisive one. Fans have chosen sides on whether he should stay or go. And what he does next will have major repercussions on not only his team's season, but a lot of long-term reputations.
If it turns into a case of Chad Johnson vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, no one wins.
First, a little history.
When the Bengals reworked his contract in April 2006 - coming off their first winning season since 1990 - everyone was delighted. Johnson got an additional $10.75 million in a deal that runs through 2010, with a club option for 2011. The team expected to be back in the playoffs year after year.
Two years later, they're at an ugly impasse.
Johnson's blowup at quarterback Carson Palmer during a loss to New England became the signature moment of a 7-9 season. For the first time in his career, Johnson came under public criticism.
He couldn't deal with it.
Johnson loves attention - it's almost like an addiction - and couldn't understand why fans were suddenly turned off by his look-at-me antics while the team was losing.
``I'm the type that I want everyone to like me and what I do,'' Johnson said in a 2006 interview. ``I don't want anybody to have any doubts in anything that I do.''
Johnson brooded and stopped talking to the local media. In the offseason, he has taken an increasingly harsher stance during a series of national interviews. He threatened to sit out the season if the Bengals didn't trade him. Agent Drew Rosenhaus pleaded with the team to deal him on draft day.
Not a chance.
Philosophically, the Bengals were not about to let a player take all his upfront money and run after only two seasons. Cincinnati ownership has a history of digging in when a recalcitrant player tries to manipulate a trade.
There was a practical reason, too. No. 3 receiver Chris Henry was released after his fifth arrest, leaving the team with only Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as proven receivers.
If they had accepted Washington's offer of a first-round draft pick and another conditional pick for Johnson, the Bengals would have been writing off next season. A team with only one proven receiver isn't going to win many games.
So, what now?
The best that can happen is Johnson shows up, shuts up and plays up to form, helping the Bengals get turned around. Anything less is a big problem.
If Johnson sits out, he stands to lose $3 million in salary. His multimillion-dollar endorsement deals are safe for now, but his long-term attractiveness as a pitch man could be deeply hurt.
``You don't know how it's going to play out, where it will play out and what kind of collateral marketing damage he's going to do to himself along the way,'' said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. ``We're at a point where corporate America is increasingly gun-shy of working with athletes.''
Johnson's endorsement deals include Degree Men deodorant, Go Daddy and Reebok. Degree sponsors his ``Who Covered No. 85'' checklist, which allows fans to vote online how he did each week. A holdout would force Degree to scramble its plans.
``We want him playing football,'' said Kevin George, vice president and general manager for Unilever's deodorant division. ``He gets more coverage when he's on the field.''
Johnson's image isn't the only one on the line.
Coach Marvin Lewis hasn't dealt with Johnson very effectively. Sometimes, he has taken a hard line. Other times, he has cut Johnson some slack. Either way, it hasn't worked. With only one winning record in five seasons, Lewis' reputation as a head coach is shaky. How he handles Johnson could cement that reputation.
Owner Mike Brown also has a lot at stake. The 7-9 backslide last season brought back memories of the bad old days. If the team implodes and Johnson's situation gets ugly, there will be a huge backlash.
There is a way out for everyone.
The Bengals drafted two receivers in the first three rounds - Coastal Carolina's Jerome Simpson and Florida's Andre Caldwell - because of the uncertainty at the position. If one or both of them develops as a rookie, the Bengals could trade Johnson after the 2008 season.
Until then, the best that could happen is Johnson shows up, shuts up and puts up big numbers. Fans might even warm to him again.
``I guarantee you that if in the first four weeks of the season he has 10 touchdowns and he's just as flamboyant, the fans will come back,'' said the Cyclones' Hamel. ``They'll be wanting to trade in hockey tickets to get their jerseys back.''
It's up to Chad.

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