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COMMENTARY : There's No Running From Racism for Bills' Bruce Smith

January 26, 1992|MICHAEL WILBON | WASHINGTON POST

MINNEAPOLIS — What we have here with Bruce Smith is an extreme case of naivete. After receiving racist hate mail at home, the Bills defensive end indicated this week he is fed up to the point that he will explore some "options," which we presume means leaving Buffalo for some other NFL city.

Options? Where has Smith been all his life that he might think, for even a millisecond, that there are options to racism? Last I checked none of the 28 NFL franchises is located in Utopia. As District of Columbia radio talk show host Harold Bell said during his commentary this week, "Somebody should tell Bruce Smith he'd have a better chance running away from daylight than he'd have running from racism."

Smith was right to speak up and do it loudly, right here on the biggest platform he'll ever have. Asked to describe the nature of the mail, he called it "very racial. Imagine the worst possible thing you can say about African Americans in our society and magnify it 10 times." But if he thinks Buffalo is worse than most cities in America, he needs a heavy dose of perspective. What he ought to do is keep the mail and forward it to the Buffalo newspapers or read one or two letters on the air the next time he has the benefit of a television camera or radio microphone.

Heck, I'll swap racially demeaning mail with Smith any time he wants. Usually, the letter arrives without a return address, much of it written in a crude, primitive way. Some of these scholars are bolder than others. In the top left hand corner of one envelope was "KKK" with a return address. I try to keep all the hate mail, because it's remindful that bigotry is alive and kicking.

Using Smith's illogic, I probably ought to explore my "options" after this Super Bowl and try to force my editor to trade me to another newspaper.

Smith has every right to be angry. He is a smart, sensitive man who battled a drug problem earlier in his career, only to have it dredged up when some radio reporter unfairly decided Smith's absence from the lineup this year wasn't because of injuries but drugs.

Bills Coach Marv Levy, who defended Smith in the strongest terms on those drug allegations, said Wednesday of the letter writers: "The problem is with the bigots who write such letters, not with Bruce. He doesn't have the problem, they do." In fact, Smith is the kind of person, high-profile and resourceful, who should be well-suited to deal with such issues.

The disturbing thing here is something that's far larger than Smith and the letters he's received. It's this silence most professional athletes maintain until racism affects them personally.

More attention is focused on fighting racism in sports and entertainment than all the other arenas combined. Yet athletes and entertainers, in their incredibly self-centered way, don't want to deal with the daily battles of black workers.

New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor complained to Sports Illustrated that he never talked about racial issues because reporters never asked him. But didn't Taylor write an autobiography in which he could have sounded off on absolutely anything? Where are black players, publicly, when the issue of the lack of blacks in the coaching ranks, is raised?

You'd think some active black player would speak up publicly on behalf of Joe Greene or Tony Dungy, their faces pressed up against the glass, waiting for a head-coaching position. You'd think the black stars, the men whose status provide at least temporary leverage against the owners, would stand up for something other than the National Anthem. When, exactly, do you think they'll figure out that in 10 years, they'll be the next wave of men denied access to head-coaching and general-manager positions?

Where are the Redskins, the minority players specifically, on the issue of the team's racially offensive nickname? You mean to tell me none of them understands why Native Americans raise the point?

Professional athletes are often in the hunt for empathy when it concerns them, yet when it's time to be counted on, what you too often hear is, "Hey, I'm just a football player, don't ask me."

Let's say Art Monk, to pick a player randomly, were to say, "Hey, I'm outraged about this particular issue," whatever it may be. What are the Redskins going to do, bench Monk for the Super Bowl? I think not. Achievement in one discipline shouldn't absolve you from social responsibility. The disturbing thing here is something that's far larger than Bruce Smith and the letters he's received. It's this silence most professional athletes maintain until racism affects them personally.

Maybe Smith is just using this because he wants out of Buffalo for other reasons. The Bills, once again, don't seem like a particularly harmonious group, especially compared with the no-frills, say-the-bland-thing Redskins.

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