Jewish World Review April 26, 2001 / 4 Iyar, 5761
I'm probably not the first person to say that, but I don't care. It needs to be said again. Yet another highly paid athlete has come down with foot-in-mouth disease.
Charlie Ward, a guard for the New York Knicks basketball team, is apologizing to everyone who was offended by his remarks regarding Jews, the Bible and the crucifixion of Jesus in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.
He's getting rebuked, but not punished. NBA Commissioner David Stern says he would rather not enhance Ward's "sense of martyrdom."
John Rocker, among others, can claim some small vindication from the way Charlie Ward is getting off easy. Maybe the message is sinking in with major sports management that you shouldn't punish people for remarks they make because they simply don't know any better. The proper response to ignorance is education, not punishment.
Who can forget how Rocker, an Atlanta Braves pitcher, was fined after he apologized for imprudent remarks he made in a magazine interview regarding immigrants, AIDS patients, welfare mothers and, in general, New Yorkers.
When Dennis Rodman was playing for the Chicago Bulls in 1997, he, too, was fined for making unkind comments about Utah's large Mormon population during a Bulls-Jazz playoff series.
Then there was football lineman Reggie White, who apologized for his stereotypical depictions of minority family life in a speech to the Wisconsin legislature. Sports commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder apologized for attributing black football players' running skills to big thighs bred into black people during slavery. Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis apologized for suggesting that blacks did not have the "necessities" for baseball management positions. Both Snyder and Campanis lost their jobs as a result.
In each of these cases I thought the proper response was not punishment, but education.
Punishment should be reserved for hurtful remarks that are made out of malice, not out of ignorance.
There's no question that Ward's remarks were vile enough to leap off the page. He is quoted as saying, "Jews are stubborn."
And, "There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day."
He asked the article's author, Eric Konigsberg, "But tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?" And then said, "They had his blood on their hands."
Teammate Allan Houston followed up by citing a Biblical passage that said Jews had "spit in Jesus' face and hit him with their fists."
It is not surprising that Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League accused Ward and Houston of religious bigotry. Anyone who knows something about the way Jews have been persecuted through history will recognize Ward's remarks as particularly chilling and even threatening. They are the sort of words that led millions of Jews to beatings, torture and death. Such an assault on an entire group of people has no place in America.
In Ward's and Houston's defense, their remarks came out during a Christian Bible study group to which Konigsberg had been invited as a journalist covering the Knicks.
Anyone who has attended Bible study groups can understand how imprudent remarks sometimes can come out during the course of healthy discussion and argument. The intent of free-flowing discussion is supposed to be education and illumination of all parties concerned. Unfortunately, such argument also can become quite unhealthy when participants are not guided by a well-informed leader.
The Times article portrays Ward and his pals as getting a one-sided view of what Judaism and, for that matter, Christianity are all about. Perhaps Ward senses that now. He announced that he is "opening dialogue" with Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to help "heal the wounds of the last few days."
Good for him. Sounds like he has a lot to learn. He might begin with the golden rule, a piece of wisdom that is echoed in just about every major religion: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So, you may ask, who cares what an overpaid athlete says? Why not ignore the boob?
Simple. We can't have it both ways. We can't say that athletes are important enough to be quoted in major media or paid millions to tout sports shoes and breakfast cereal, then, when they slander entire groups of people, say that their words suddenly don't mean anything.
No, athletes should be held accountable by their fans when their language about other people gets reckless. John Rocker knows about that. He still gets booed wherever he goes, but especially in New York.
Ward was booed, too, when he entered the court during Sunday's game against Toronto. That's part of the game in basketball and in life. Free speech goes both ways. If Ward fails to open his mind to respect other religious beliefs, shame on him. If the rest of us fail to hold him accountable, shame on
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