So new year's day was not doomsday: An angry God did not descend to judge the living and the dead. But don't despair. We still have sports, in which every day is Judgment Day, when sportswriters pass judgment on coaches who pass judgment on radio hosts who pass judgment on athletes who pass judgment on fans—and so on and so on, ad ridiculum. After Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker denounced women, Asians, gays, New Yorkers and children in this magazine, an Atlanta radio host named Steak Shapiro spent the better part of two days denouncing Rocker on his show and on CNN, while I spent a good 20 minutes at home reflexively making fun of Steak Shapiro, which sounds like a Catskills entree, like Lobster Newburg or Oysters Rockefeller. Soon, you will write in to denounce me. And so forth. This is the circle of life.
Or it used to be, anyway. Suddenly, it seems, judging one's fellow man has fallen out of favor. Not in society at large, mind you: Americans still love to watch Judge Judy tell a tank-topped supplicant in her TV courtroom to stand up straight and shut his pie hole. But in sports, every day now, the most unlikely people are renouncing Judge Judy-ism. ESPN, in the tradition of Afghani state television, occasionally invites Bobby Knight on to address his critics. Last week Knight (inevitably seated before a burled-walnut bookcase) bullwhipped members of the media by quoting his favorite Biblical passage. "Judge not," said Knight, his face full of portent, "lest ye be judged."
Likewise, English soccer star (and tabloid target) Ian Wright has a Biblical passage tattooed on one of his biceps: LET HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN CAST THE FIRST STONE. (It's a big biceps.) For Knight and Wright, the conceit is the same: Who are you to judge me?
"What the hell does Rick Reilly know about anything?" New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka asked, somewhat uncharitably, when that SI columnist suggested last summer that Iron Mike had fleeced rookie Ricky Williams at contract time. "Just because you have a pen, or a pencil, or a typewriter, that makes you an expert on life?" (Never mind that Williams will cash in almost none of the incentives in that contract and will earn a paltry $225,000 in salary this year.)
It has come to this: Da Coach (who once brained a woman with a wad of gum) and the General (who recently fragged a hunting buddy) are champions of the New Non-Judgmentalism.
Even journalists are joining the cause. In his excellent new biography of Vince Lombardi (When Pride Still Mattered), David Maraniss writes of myth-making scribes such as Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon: "There is something to be said for the way they presented the world, looking for the romantic aspects of human nature through the playing of games, preferring it to what would come later, the cynicism of modern journalism and its life-deadening focus on money, controversy and man's inevitable fall from grace."
Maraniss won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his reporting on Bill Clinton, who was asked, in the 1999 year-end issue of PEOPLE magazine, to pass moral judgment on Pete Rose. The President demurred, responding: "Who am I, of all people, to say?"
Ultimately, though, Clinton couldn't resist weighing in on Rose's fitness for the Hall of Fame, projecting his own perceived martyrdom onto Charlie Hustle. "God knows he's paid a price," said Clinton. "And I'd like to see what he did...somehow accepted." An understandable sentiment from a man whose zipper had to be sewn shut (if only on his wax likeness in an Australian museum, whose patrons kept unzipping it).
All of which is to say that the New Non-Judgmentalism may merely reflect a disingenuous desire among public figures to preempt criticism. When nobody judges, everything is condoned.
Of course, the possibility remains that the movement is sincere: a commendable contagion, a growing humility among all of humanity, just in time for the 21st century. Who am I, of all people, to say?