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Grace under fire

In many ways the 21st century sports world, with its round-the-clock cable networks, Web site wise men and ceaseless talk-radio debates, would have been unrecognizable to Jackie Robinson. He no doubt would have been amazed by the sheer number of voices crashing into each other in our modern-day Babel, not to mention their volume. But there is at least one thing that hasn't changed in the 60 years since Robinson broke baseball's color barrier: The most hateful loudmouths are the ones that seem to make themselves heard above the din.

Don Imus, the cadaverous radio host who last week mocked the Rutgers women's basketball team by calling them "nappy-headed hos" -- proving that even a global village has its idiots -- is just the latest example of that phenomenon.

In his day, Robinson knew all about men like Imus, who was fired by CBS and MSNBC for his actions. Those men were the ones who showered him with verbal abuse from the stands, shouting the worst kind of racist invective as he went about his business with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Like Imus, they might have been motivated by humor as well as hatred; it's not hard to envision Robinson's tormentors being egged on by their laughing cronies in the stands, in much the same way that Imus' radio stooges, Bernard McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg, helped him ridicule Rutgers. Imus is the direct descendant of those ignorant hecklers of Robinson's day -- the only difference is that he sits in a studio instead of a stadium and he has the technology to make his venom heard from coast to coast.

Robinson knew thousands of men like Don Imus and he learned how to deal with them, especially in 1947, his first season with the Dodgers. He came to realize that he couldn't stand up to every moron individually, as much as he might have liked to. He learned that to respond to every bigot's comments would be to validate them. That's even more true today, when the proliferation of pundits makes it impossible to engage every one who says something offensive. If only the Rutgers women had the benefit of Robinson's counsel, they might have quickly dismissed Imus' nonsense instead of giving him so much more attention than he deserved.

For Robinson, the strategy was simple -- ignore the insults and do the job. It's hard to imagine him, even in these media-conscious times, calling a press conference to respond to the abuse, as Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer and her players did on Tuesday in the wake of Imus' comments. Robinson's advice would probably have been to sidestep the press and get back to work as student-athletes. The best response to Imus' comments, he might have told the Rutgers players, is with actions, not words. Continue winning games and pursuing your diplomas, and the absurdity of the radio rantings from Imus and his friends will be exposed for anyone with common sense to see.

Robinson would undoubtedly have been heartened that the outrage over Imus' comments has crossed racial and ethnic lines. None of the loudmouths who made Robinson's entry into the big leagues so difficult ever felt public pressure to apologize repeatedly, as Imus has. Sixty years ago Robinson, the target of abuse, was the one who was made to feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. It's a sign of progress that today it's Imus, the abuser, who is on the hot seat.

If Imus wants us to believe that he feels true regret, he needs to prove it by excising all the racist, sexist garbage from his act, should he manage to resurface somewhere. Jackie Robinson didn't tell the public about the content of his character, he showed it, over time, through the way he behaved. Don Imus should do the same.

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