Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2004 / 3 Adar, 5764

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Taliban sports players | Shaquille O'Neal was casting about for something nasty to say about George Karl.

This was in 1998. The then-coach of the Seattle Supersonics had complained that the L.A. Lakers center threw elbows and committed traveling violations.

That angered O'Neal, who wanted to label the coach something truly and memorably insulting. So he called Karl a woman.

''He's been crying for seven years,'' said O'Neal. "He looks like a woman coach sometimes. . . . He's a crybaby.''

O'Neal later apologized. Sort of.

Woman wasn't the word he meant, he explained. "What I was looking for is a word you can't say on film.''

In other words, ''woman'' was a synonym for something even more offensive.

O'Neal's moment of open mouth, insert foot is brought to mind by the scandal boiling up out of the University of Colorado. As reported in Sports Illustrated, recruits being wooed by the school's football program were taken to parties where women, alcohol and drugs were served as part of the effort to get them to sign on the dotted line.

Six women have now come forward to say they were raped by CU players.

This includes Katie Hnida who, in 1999, became the only woman ever to play for the team. Hnida, a placekicker, told SI's Rick Reilly that players groped, verbally abused and exposed themselves to her. Finally, she says, one teammate raped her.

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Responding to Hnida's charges, Coach Gary Barnett told reporters last week, "It was obvious that Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do — they respect your ability. Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible.''

If you understand what the heck that has to do with rape allegations, you're smarter than I. Barnett was suspended for his comments and may be unemployed by the time you read this. It couldn't happen to a more deserving man.

I say that not just because Barnett's remarks appear to justify abuse and mistreatment, not just because they make being a girl sound like a physical defect, not just because they trivialize a crime of violence and violation. No, the most appalling thing about Barnett's words, as seen from this pew, is the near-Taliban level of contempt toward women they expose.

It's a contempt that surfaces reliably in those places where Alpha males congregate. That's why the military is periodically roiled by rape scandals, why ''woman'' was the worst thing O'Neal could think of to call Karl. It's why, even in the era of Lisa Leslie, Brandi Chastain and the Williams sisters, the absolute worst thing you can tell a guy is still, "You play like a girl.'' I have nothing against macho — that masculine swagger of confidence, toughness and a touch of arrogance. But I have never understood macho to require the diminution of women.

That speaks less of confidence and toughness mixed with arrogance than insecurity and weakness masked by it.

It ought not require saying outside Taliban-era Afghanistan, but a woman is not just a sexual receptacle and bearer of children. A woman has intrinsic worth, inherent dignity. And as long as I'm saying things that ought not need saying: Superior physical strength is neither character reference nor proof of entitlement; it is a sign of moral flaccidity and intellectual impotence to be threatened by a woman's presence in a male preserve and, rumors to the contrary aside, the human brain is located well north of the human crotch.

What does it suggest that these things are not universally understood in America in 2004? Leslie goes up for the dunk, Chastain aces the penalty kick, the Williams sisters smash unanswerable volleys, yet men still taunt one another with, "You play like a girl.''

Don't they wish.

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