MIAMI -- Four words.
That's all it takes to stain and scar your name. All the good work before it, all the good decades of good words and good syllables and good professionalism gets swallowed in a hiccup. How have we arrived in this place where so little dark can envelope so much light?
Distinguished Miami Dolphins legend Bob Griese was perfect in 1972 and has been pretty publicly perfect since, becoming one of the nation's best college-football voices. That voice has spent a lot of time in our living rooms over the years, talking to us for hours and hours on Saturday afternoons, but it was silenced this weekend. Punished. Suspended for a week. And stained in a way that hurt his name and echoed throughout the The Land Of The Free Until You Say Something That May Or May Not Be Considered Kind Of Sort Of Offensive By Somebody. It was, a wounded Griese said, the first time in 28 years of broadcasting that he has gotten in trouble with an employer.
"Out having a taco."
That's what Griese said during a college-football broadcast a week ago, trying to make a joke about race-car driver Juan Pablo Montoya. And I, a Cuban sports columnist, am still trying to figure out how and why I'm supposed to be offended, and for whom. Colombians? Mexicans? Hispanics in general? Cheap food? Taco Bell?
If Griese had said arepa, would that be allowed because Montoya is Colombian? If Manny Fernandez had said exactly the same thing, would that be OK? Was Griese's crime getting Montoya's nationality wrong or his nationality's food? Or was it being white? Is his joke permissible if Montoya's car had been sponsored by Taco Bell?
Regardless, I wish I'd heard a fraction as much about Griese's charity work (helping kids cope with grief) as I did this week about tacos. It didn't make me angry. What it made me was hungry. And it's a good thing for Griese he didn't go anywhere near Taco Bell's new black taco.
(You have to admit, having someone who pronounces his name "greasy" involved in a taco controversy is oddly wonderful. Almost as great as if it had involved Art Shell, Matt Fish, Billy Beane or Renyel Pinto.)
In our zeal to be sensitive, we're often too sensitive. But this is what can happen when a bunch of white executives punish a white broadcaster for what they think might offend people who aren't white. You want to tackle a real race issue? Don't punish Griese. Put some black and Hispanic people in charge so they can tell you what does and doesn't offend us the next time something like this comes around. Punishing Griese doesn't make you sensitive to racism; it just makes you look like you'd very much like to appear sensitive to racism. That isn't the same thing at all.
'A VERY TOUGH WEEK'
I wanted to have an honest conversation about this with Griese. I came as an ally. But he wasn't getting anywhere near this stove again.
"It has been a very tough week," he said. "I want to be known for something else. I don't want to continue this. I just want to put this behind me. I've gotten a lot of support -- calls from Keith Jackson, Don Shula. Is this what it feels like to die?"
I asked if this was the toughest week he can remember.
"And more," he said.
You know what gets lost there, right? An honest, open conversation -- one in which people, you know, learn and, you know, understand. You can't have those when scared. I wanted to know specifics. How and why, exactly, did he apologize? Because of the action, the reaction or because his bosses simply said he should? Had he heard from anyone in Miami who was offended? How does it feel to be at this storm center, knowing that this whiff of racism is the only thing some people will know of him as they come into sports from outside to see what all this noise is about? I wanted to make him human, not just four words.
MINORITY CARTE BLANCHE
But I understand his fear. If I didn't understand all this as the allegedly injured party, how could he? I can say what I want about this, too. I've got minority carte blanche. That dynamic can create resentment among white people, that I get more of a free-speech America than they do when discussing this stuff. I get it. I find myself dancing around land mines any time I want to discuss black issues on the radio or TV. Any sentence can end my career, which doesn't exactly foster healthy communication or confident discussion.
Last week on the radio, for example, we talked a lot about former Heat star Antoine Walker blowing through a $110million fortune while supporting 70 family members and friends. I wanted to know what elements of this, if any, were cultural, so I brought on three black peers. Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon said it was a cultural issue and that it takes a special kind of will power and discipline for a young, rich person of any color to be unpopular among friends by saying no. Jalen Rose said it was a socioeconomic issue, not a cultural one, and that people of all color and creeds in entertainment lose their money by being reckless and trying to help loved ones. And Charles Barkley flatly blamed black culture and freeloaders.
But Barkley is the rare fearless celebrity who can say just about anything he wants without worrying about silly things like food stereotypes.
Which might explain how he could say, as he did, that the greatest white man ever is Colonel Sanders.