Rush From Judgment Suddenly, sports figures refuse to criticize others in hopes that others will do likewise unto them

January 10, 2000

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 Judyism. 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 mythmaking 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?

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

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