By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 16, 2007 5:42 PM
On Sunday, the 60th anniversary of what was arguable the most important day in the history of baseball, Major League Baseball honored Jackie Robinson. Whether it was a publicity stunt or not -- and to some degree, it clearly was -- the idea of remembering what Robinson did in breaking baseball's color line was a good one and an important one, especially in an era when so many athletes have no clue about those who came before them.
There was, sadly, a good deal of irony in the timing of the anniversary. That's because it happened to come at the end of a week when we were reminded again just how racially polarized our country remains, even now, all these years after Pee Wee Reese, the white shortstop who grew up amidst segregation in Kentucky put his arm around Robinson during a game in Cincinnati to send a message to people that he and Robinson were teammates -- regardless of either man's color.
Moments like that seemed very far away last week.
It began two weeks ago with Don Imus making his moronic and completely un-funny crack about the members of the Rutgers women's basketball team. This really wasn't anything new for Imus. He and those who surround him on his syndicated radio show have been making tasteless comments about women and African-Americans and Hispanics and Jews and fat people and old people and mentally slow people and anyone else you can think of for 35 years.
Imus has been scolded in the past, but always emerged unscathed, in part because he was a huge moneymaker for both CBS and NBC, the parent companies that his show appeared on; in part because he is smart and talented and became a shaper-of-events through the interviews he did with politicians and media figures and athletes and, perhaps most importantly, because he almost always shot upwards: making cracks about the rich and the powerful and the arrogant. This time though, he shot at a bunch of college kids, who weren't rich, weren't powerful and were anything but arrogant. There was simply no defending the act, or the comment.
A pause here for two disclaimers: first, the notion that shooting down is what ultimately nailed Imus is an idea first voiced to me by my colleague Sally Jenkins. I'd love to take credit for it because I think she's right, but I can't. Second, I have appeared on occasion on Imus's show even though a lot of his humor through the years made me squirm uncomfortably. Why did I do it? Simple: Imus sold books. It would be very easy, and hypocritical, for me to now disavow any knowledge of my actions, but I knew exactly what I was doing. Imus always asked good questions and he sold books. I willingly appeared on the show. I did say publicly I wouldn't appear again (if asked) after the Rutgers crack but I can hardly sit on a pedestal and say I was any better than Tim Russert, John Kerry or John McCain.
In fact, I admire people like Mike Barnicle and Mike Lupica who stood behind Imus through all of this because he was a friend. That's what friends do.
The point of all this though is not to analyze why Imus got fired, or what Imus did wrong, or who did or did not defend him. The point is to say this: why does it always seem these things break down along racial lines? Why does it seem like almost all of those saying Imus got shafted are white and almost all of those screaming for his head are black? Why is it Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton leading the anti-Imus charge and not Bill Clinton and George (the elder) Bush? That's not to pick on any of those four men, but let's go a step further: why is it always the right-wing pundits defending white people and left-wing pundits defending black people?
Of course in the wake of Monday's tragedy at Virginia Tech there will be a lot of people saying, "well this puts the Imus controversy and the Duke lacrosse controversy in perspective."
No, it doesn't. Virginia Tech is about the actions of a madman. It has nothing to do with reason, or people disagreeing for political or racial reasons. It isn't something that needs analysis -- except perhaps from those who still insist that it is okay to hand out guns like candy -- as much as it needs to be dealt with as a horrific chapter in our history.
Imus and Duke are neither horrific nor tragic. Just disturbing. In the Duke case, the arguing broke down the same way as it did in the Imus case. Right from the beginning, it was the (largely white) right-wing media screaming that the Duke players were victims and the left-wing media saying that this was a case or rich, arrogant kids out of control. This time, both sides were correct.
The Duke players were victims of a prosecutor, Mike Nifong, who was either overzealous or incompetent or both. They were also the victims of their school's leadership, which completely ignored an escalating situation, then threw the entire team right under the wheels of the bus in order to save itself. The flip side though is that these were not innocents. This was not a case of one party gone awry, this was a case of a group of out-of-control kids getting themselves into a very bad situation -- probably at least in part because some of them were screaming racial epithets at the two strippers they had hired for the evening.
This wasn't just boys being boys. This was a team about whom a Duke administrator had written a report two years earlier describing them (the lacrosse team) as, "a train wreck waiting to happen." Tallman Trask, the university vice president who was handed that report, did nothing with it. He informed Joe Alleva, the athletic director, that it existed and Alleva did not so much as ask to see it. And yet neither one of them has been fired in the wake of all this. Only Mike Pressler, the coach, who according to Duke's own report was the one adult on campus who took some action after the report, was fired.
President Richard Brodhead wasn't wrong to suspend the team's season after the initial reports came out. If nothing else it sent a message that accusations of rape would not be taken lightly, even if Alleva's initial response, "this is an unfortunate incident," was laughably stupid. But once all 46 players had been DNA-tested and no DNA from any of them showed up on the accuser's body, Brodhead should have allowed the season to continue. At that point the burden should have fallen on Nifong -- who probably should be disbarred given his behavior -- and not on the players since at that moment Nifong had produced zero evidence of their guilt. He never did produce any evidence at all which is why the charges had to be dropped.
Now, of course, the defenders of the right and the white are screaming that the lives of the three indicted players have been ruined. Surely, they were treated unfairly by Nifong and by Duke. Just as surely Duke -- which is so flush it has more money than it knows what to do with -- should pay every penny of their legal expenses. But their lives aren't ruined. In fact, to some they will now be heroic martyrs. Doors will open for them because of who they are, and because they were unjustly accused.
Let's not make them into heroes. They were still part of a group of kids that was out of control and never have they shown any remorse for anything other than the fact that they were facing rape charges. No one from the lacrosse team has ever said, "okay, maybe we went too far with our partying at times." Remember one team member was also accused of a gay-bashing crime in Washington and another sent out a hateful, threatening e-mail in the wake of the arrests.
The larger point is this: the white guys aren't always right and neither are the black guys. In the Duke case, the truth clearly lies in the middle: no one on either side covered themselves with any glory. In the Imus case, the same is true. Imus was wrong but he wasn't fired because of what he said, he was fired because he became radioactive to advertisers. Neither CBS nor NBC was outraged initially by what he said -- they had heard it all before. They became outraged when revenues became the issue.
The Rutgers women are victims, but they too will more than survive. In fact, in many ways they will thrive and become a much bigger story than they were as an underdog team that made the NCAA women's national championship game. And their coach, C. Vivian Stringer, was way over the top when she called them, "God's representatives." They're college students and basketball players. That's more than enough.
Everyone should tone down the hyperbole. On both sides.