There are many issues involving race and sports worth getting excited about. The lack of minority ownership of professional sports franchises is one of them. The snaillike advancement of persons of color into the managerial and coaching ranks of these teams is another. But for all the hype surrounding Latrell Sprewell, the incident between him and his coach most assuredly does not belong in this group.
Not every confrontation between a black man and a white man constitutes a civil rights issue. To suggest that the Sprewell case does diminishes the real civil rights issues that the U.S. has faced in the past and faces still. Not every incident like this sheds light on the state of race relations in American life. To suggest that this case does diverts us from the challenges we must confront across the racial divide.
Sometimes things are no bigger than they seem, sometimes there is not more than meets the eye, and sometimes even an event like this one provides us with no insight into relations between white and black Americans generally. Sometimes things get out of hand, self-control is tossed out the window, and someone crosses the line of acceptable behavior and resorts to violence. And that's it.
According to eyewitness accounts, at a practice on Dec. 1 Sprewell placed his hands around the neck of his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, began choking him and shouting, "I'm going to kill you." You don't need to be a rocket scientist or even an expert in jurisprudence to know that there is something fundamentally wrong with such behavior and that it demands punishment.
Some in the media, including this magazine, have tried their level best to spin the race angle on this story. Black player. White coach. Violence. Celebrity. Ratings. The punditocracy is in a lather. No less a personage than Sam Donaldson stated on ABC's This Week—without a shred of evidence—that " Jesse Jackson may go so far as to begin picketing or boycotting the NBA." Let me be very clear: I won't be leading any pickets or rallies or marches in reaction to the Sprewell case. I will pray for Latrell, however. I will pray that he finds the inner peace that is missing from his life, that he can rein in the anger and resentment that seem to have gained the upper hand in his soul. And I will pray that fans of the NBA will find it in their hearts to forgive him, as Jesus calls on us to forgive our brother seventy times seven. I will pray that there will be forgiveness, reconciliation and that some day Latrell will be able to rejoin the NBA with a clear conscience and a full heart.
Because of the length of time, a year, that the NBA has required Sprewell to sit out, it has been suggested that commissioner David Stern is trying to send a message or draw a line. A message does need to be sent, and a line does need to be drawn. But the challenge for our society is to begin drawing that line a long time before players reach the NBA. If the Sprewell episode has a larger implication, it is found in a sports-entertainment industry that tells athletes at a very young age that they may play by a different set of rules than their fellow students, that coddles them and spoils them and that showers them with rewards out of all proportion to their contributions to society.
All the fuss about Sprewell will have accomplished something if, as a result, we begin asking questions about the role of sports in our society. The road to an incident like this begins the first time an F is turned into a C for a star athlete, when local prosecutors pass on a case that would have landed a nonathlete in jail, when high school and college coaches are not expected to have a broad role in the academic life of the schools that hire them, when communities choose to build spanking new stadiums rather than rebuild crumbling elementary schools.
It's easy to condemn Latrell Sprewell. It's easy to try to inject race into the case. What is more difficult and more worthy is for all of us, regardless of race, to ponder our own culpability in the creation of a sports-entertainment industry of big stars and big money that may be teaching our children all the wrong lessons.