The agony of apology

Jack Silverstein

It seems that not a month goes by without some public figure making headlines with a comment that strikes the public as racially insensitive. When Air Force Academy's head football coach Fisher DeBerry was recently asked to comment on why his team has been slumping, he suggested it was due in part to the lack of black players who "can run very, very fast." When asked to elaborate, DeBerry added, "It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn't mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can't run, but it's very obvious to me they run extremely well."

DeBerry seemed to be standing by his comments, but after he was reprimanded by Air Force Lt. Gen. John Regni, DeBerry apologized. "I realize the things I said might have been hurtful to many people and I want everyone to understand that I never intended to offend anyone."

When it comes to apologizing, DeBerry is not alone.

A year ago it was Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells. He referred to surprise plays as "Jap plays." Parcells prefaced the comments with the disclaimer "no disrespect for the Orientals," which is kind of like prefacing the dropping of an atomic bomb with a peace-offering of mesh gas masks.

Then there was Miami Dolphins linebacker and all-around good guy Junior Seau, who got into the act during a team banquet in which Seau was given the team's leadership award. While describing the Dolphins' high level of camaraderie, Seau said that if he used the word love, "everybody would say you're a faggot, but I'm not." Like DeBerry and Parcells, Seau quickly issued an apology, saying, "If any offense were taken, then I certainly will be the first to apologize." Obviously, Seau's comments were in no way insulting to the gay community, as I am sure that he has a great deal of respect for all faggots.

Sometimes it's a misunderstanding

During the 2003 NBA playoffs, NBC's Jim Gray held an interview with basketball stars Carmelo Anthony, Larry Bird, LeBron James and Magic Johnson. While they covered many topics, the most talked-about segment stemmed from Bird's thoughts that the NBA needed more white stars.

"I think it's good for a fan base because as we all know the majority of the fans are white America," Bird said. "And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever."

Were Bird's statements racist? Kike please! I don't think so. ESPN ran a story about Bird's "Controversial Comments," as did many newspapers around the country, but I don't see what the big deal is. People enjoy watching athletes that look like them, which is why short guys like Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb are so popular. Bird is right to say that white stars are good for the league, since most fans who attend NBA games on a regular basis are white. Besides, Bird's comments shouldn't really come as a surprise. It's a pretty typical viewpoint for a Southerner.

Lots of people make comments and have opinions about race in America. Some of those comments might be controversial. Are all of these people racist or hateful? It's not that simple. Some people truly believe that there are significant differences between whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics or anyone else in intelligence, abilities and physical skills. These people may be intelligent, or they may be ignorant. It cuts both ways. Other people carry no ill will towards different groups, but still, for one reason or another, are prejudiced. And still others are just people who don't think before they talk. All people have prejudices, be them black, white, red, yellow or spic, but the important thing is to always be respectful, and to try and understand how ...

Um, it has come to my attention that parts of this column may have been insulting to some people, so I'd like to apologize to the gay community, the Hispanic community and the South. If I've upset or offended anyone, I am truly sorry. My words were taken out of context, and came out wrong. However, I will not apologize for the use of the word kike, because as a Jew, it is my right to refer to myself and all the other kikes as kikes.

Anyhow, I didn't find Larry Bird's comments to be racist; he was being honest. It's not like Bird is the timid white kid who tells an offensive joke about black people, and then justifies it with the classic disclaimer: "It's OK. I know a black guy." Yeah, so? If one black guy tells you it's cool for you to tell the joke, and another says that it's not, what then? Which black guy takes precedent? Should we have them play Rock, Paper, Scissors, or flip a coin? Should we have a national Black Guy Poll every year to find out which jokes they're cool with, and which white guys can tell them?

Of course, this doesn't apply to everyone. Some people will say absolutely anything, and we can find them on both sides of the political spectrum. Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman ... and on the other side, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Larry Elder. Interesting that on the right, it's the political commentators who are allowed to say whatever they please, while on the left, it's the comedians. Most people on the left are too afraid to say anything about race, lest they be considered "racist," so they leave it up to the comedians. On the right, they don't need comedians to approach taboo subjects; they're all too happy to do it themselves.

The question of "authority"

Bird's situation reminded me of the whole Rush Limbaugh-Donovan McNabb thing. If you recall, the conservative talk show host Limbaugh was doing guest spots on ESPN's NFL pregame show, Sunday NFL Countdown, when he said that the Eagles' quarterback was the reason the Eagles were struggling offensively, and that McNabb was overrated by the media because they "are very desirous that a black quarterback can do well."

When it comes to the football part, Limbaugh was just flat out wrong. McNabb is a hell of a player, and Rush must have been clueless if he considered Philly's offensive struggles to be proof that McNabb wasn't all he's cracked up to be. But was he totally off base to think that the media and the NFL would want a black quarterback to succeed so that they can prove that they are not racist?

And of course, the McNabb-Limbaugh situation is also a question of circumstance. Because Limbaugh is white, has nothing to do with football and is known for his conservative views and hard-nosed attitude, his comments were certain to be looked at in a completely negative light. Had the comment been made by Michael Irvin or Tom Jackson, it would have been received differently. During the summer of 2003, three months before Limbaugh's comments, Cubs' manager Dusty Baker made headlines when he said that "It's easier for most Latin guys and for most minority people [to play baseball in hot weather] because most of us come from heat. You don't find too many brothers from New Hampshire and Maine and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right?"

Had this comment been made by Limbaugh, it would have been a big controversy. But since it came from a black guy, and a former ballplayer, people did not respond in the same way since they feel that Baker has some authority to make a judgment like that. And that brings up another question right there: What the hell is Rush Limbaugh doing on ESPN talking about football in the first place? There's no reason for ESPN to put that guy on their show, but having done that they should have the balls to leave him on. You know what you're getting when you hire Rush Limbaugh, so for ESPN to act shocked and issue a statement reprimanding the guy is possibly the dumbest thing of all.

However, we did see something different with that situation. Not only did Limbaugh not apologize, but McNabb stated publicly that he did not want one. I'm glad Limbaugh didn't apologize, as his comments seemed to be thought out and not spur-of-the-moment. But even if they weren't, McNabb is right to not want an apology, because what's the point? Apologies get old and meaningless after a while. Apologies are empty. It's time for people to think about what they say and take responsibility for their words, and it's also time for those who are insulted to pause, and rather than just simply getting angry, to use their words as an opportunity for growth and change. The more time that we spend teaching and helping each other understand how we feel, the better off we will be.

McNabb obviously recognizes this. He's a stand-up guy. My nigga.

Yeah I know, but it's cool. I can say it. I know a black guy.