A dose of real life might be the cure for John Rocker
Once upon a time, if a professional athlete slurred a nation, you would apologize for him by saying, "He's a dumbbell, what do you expect?" More recently, sports figures sometimes lost their jobs over bigoted comments, but they were announcers or general managers, not guys who could run a 4.4 40 or throw 98 mph. Athletes could count on some forgiveness, with the general understanding that they weren't exactly diplomats to begin with.
Then—what happened?—athletes became better paid, more popular, even more influential. We naturally presumed they were smarter, too. This played to one of America's more desperate beliefs: that somebody truly important can't possibly be an idiot.
Now we know otherwise. It was disappointing but not terribly shocking when Braves reliever John Rocker referred to a black teammate as "a fat monkey" and ripped immigrants, women and gays in these pages (SI, Dec. 27-Jan. 3). And were we really all that shaken when Vaclav Prospal of the NHL's Senators called French Canadian Canadien Patrice Brisebois a "frog"? Plenty of idiots are out there, and a proportionate number of them play pro sports. What's a commissioner to do?
Ordinarily, nothing except get the offender to read an apology written by a lawyer. But the stakes are high in sports these days, so an apology is no longer enough. The new thing is counseling—psychological testing for Rocker, per the commish's order, and so-called diversity training for Prospal.
Well, if a couple of sit-downs work for these two guys, good for Big Time Sports. Still, we can't help but think this has more to do with p.r. than with the rehabilitation of bigots. Big Time Sports, which so carefully cultivates consumer confidence (and TV ratings), can't afford to come off as some sweaty KKK. So if Rocker and Prospal can somehow be reprogrammed to speak in Hallmarkese, then leagues, networks and sponsors will all breathe easier.
It's a fine idea but, like all of Big Time Sports' ideas, a little arrogant. Bud Selig is going to help stamp out racism by sending Rocker to a headshrinker? We can't say we share Selig's optimism (or calculation). A better corrective than counseling might be real life, which moves toward justice in ragged, decidedly un-dogmatic fits and starts. Real life, by the way, is what happens when Rocker suits up alongside Brian Jordan, warms up with Javy Lopez and has to take the hill against, oh, let's see... Albert Belle.
HIGH SCHOOL SCANDAL
East Side Story
Over the past few years the apartment above Catalucci's Restaurant at 387 Chestnut Street in Newark's Ironbound section has been something of a basketball United Nations. It was home to Boban Savovic of Montenegro, now a guard at Ohio State, when he led Newark's East Side High to a New Jersey sectional championship two years ago; it briefly housed Sam Nadeau of France last season while he led East Side to a 22-3 record and another sectional title; and it appears to have been home away from home for East Side's five foreign players this season—until the Newark Star-Ledger blew the whistle.
On Dec. 16, the day before the Red Raiders were to open their season with five foreign transfer students on their roster—the most ever on a New Jersey public school team—the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) declared four of them ineligible on the suspicion that they had broken NJSIAA residency rules and transferred for athletic reasons after being recruited. The Newark school board suspended East Side coach Ed Leibowitz.