Commentary

Ignore my big, fat mouth

Updated: June 6, 2013, 10:20 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

DISCLAIMER: I know we just met when you clicked on this story, but I have a favor to ask up front. Seeing as I'm leaned on all the time to express my opinions in public, and, well … since it's impossible to always tell you about the extenuating circumstances in my life -- the competing pressures and fluctuating tide of ego spikes and disappointments, the private back stories or, let's face it, intellectual shortfalls and personal blind spots I have that could be muddying my judgment, unbeknownst to you or me (Wait, did I just say that in my out-loud voice?!) -- I thought I'd just ask for your forbearance ahead of time. Before I screw up.

[+] EnlargeSergio Garcia
Warren Little/Getty ImagesSergio Garcia offered not one, but two apologies after commenting about Tiger Woods.

Could you please just ignore my big fat mouth?

I'm starting to think some pre-emptive statement like that should be a standard-issue part of every sports figure's arsenal after what's been happening lately outside the lines. Because once you get past the usual excuses and carefully crafted apologies that are typically thrown out after someone says something that leaves them roasting on a spit -- a place everyone from Sergio Garcia to Roy Hibbert to Julie Hermann to Gordon Gee to John Tortorella has found themselves lately -- what we're left with are the same prickly questions: What were they thinking? And what punishment should be doled out, if any?

When is a remark just dumb proof that not everybody's a comedian? And when does it provide a genuine window into someone's truly reprehensible soul?

How do you tell with any confidence if someone is merely oratorically challenged, or a bona fide racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic lout who should be driven out? Is it by deconstructing their apologies? Or scouring their lives before now? Does a split-second mistake obliterate all that?

I'm always haunted by this terrific story written by Peter Richmond years ago about Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder in which Snyder, speaking two years after his firing and excommunication by CBS, croaks, "I'm a dead man."

Snyder made some racial remarks in an impromptu TV interview and became a living ghost. Toxic and unemployable.

Figuring out what to do is especially confounding when demonstrably smart people do really stupid things. How could a repeat verbal gaffesman -- take Gee, the Ohio State president who just resigned Tuesday after some impolitic remarks about the "damn Catholics" at Notre Dame ("can't trust them") and the quality of education that SEC schools provide -- not know better?

Or what confluence of ego, poor improvisational skills and true animus prompts someone like the Indiana Pacers' Hibbert to sit down in front of NBA reporters who were predisposed to praise him for his defensive play and breakout playoff performances, and then stun them by saying this:

"No homo" and you "mother f-------".

Everyone should know better by now. So why does this keep happening? Why does the sports world that once saw Fuzzy Zoeller make a stereotyping remark about fried chicken and Tiger Woods give us Garcia directing the exact same insult at Woods decades later? Some of it truly is just lamebrained showing off. Or succumbing to emotion -- frustration, hubris, panic.

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty ImagesPlenty of sports figures have opened their mouths too wide in recent weeks.

Some people can't resist the chance to seem a little edgy or fearless or untamable. (Hibbert had just been asked questions about stopping LeBron James and not doing better in the All-NBA defensive team voting and, he seemed to be trying to do a poor shock-jock imitation of John Thompson the elder, the tell-it-like-it-is spiritual beacon who established the Georgetown program where Hibbert came of age.)

In the case of Julie Hermann, the just-hired Rutgers athletic director who was confronted with questions about how a volleyball team she coached 17 years ago unanimously mutinied at her verbally abusive language, Hermann made things worse by initially saying she didn't remember that incident at all. Oh wait -- then she did. By Wednesday, when she met with the press at Rutgers again, she was now maintaining that whole trial-by-fire stretch at Tennessee leaves her "uniquely positioned" to pull Rutgers out of the muck created by the firing of verbally abusive basketball coach Mike Rice and her predecessor, Tim Pernetti.

But her flip-flopping raises questions. How true can her personal convictions or devotion to truth and reform be if they seem so damn negotiable?

But something else often feels in play, too, when these controversies explode.

The reason we have so much trouble deciding where we draw the line on what constitutes offensive behavior and what to do about it is the line is often moving.

And I'd argue that's a good thing.

What it suggests is a sports world that is being activist and sincere about addressing inclusiveness -- not flippant (as the stony silence in the room proved when Hibbert made his remarks). And not dismissively bitching about the overreaching of the Thought Police.

Even authority figures -- especially authority figures -- deserve to be challenged and held accountable. The New York Rangers recently fired Tortorella for reasons unexplained, but some scalding player exit interviews and his long-running truculence had to play some part. Because the man won and he still got abruptly fired.

Words are important, all right. And the give-and-take is, too, bumpy as it can be.

When someone such as Jason Collins, the gay NBA player who recently came out, reveals in Sports Illustrated that his "one small gesture" of silent solidarity with the gay community was choosing to play his last season in the closet wearing No. 98 because "one of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days later after he was finally found," it underscores why complaints about homophobia are not nuisance claims. Homophobia is serious stuff that has to be denounced.

[+] EnlargeGordon Gee
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterGordon Gee, who has had to apologize in the past for comments, should have known better.

It's just hard to generalize what punishment fits. Some words feel like fists landing. Others are like paper airplanes that harmlessly glance off whatever they hit.

Maybe this will help: One of the foundations of antidiscrimination law is the idea that what defines unacceptable words or behavior is in the eyes of the victim, and not the antagonist. And if someone is told their behavior is offensive and they are asked to stop and they refuse, there could be trouble to pay.

That seems like a useful rule of thumb to remember when a sports figure or anyone else misspeaks.

Attitudes evolve. Something that would not have been a fire-able or fine-able offense 10 or even five years ago is now liable to get your big fat mouth a big fat fine from a commissioner. Or a stinging public rebuke.

That's not political correctness run amok. That's progress.

What it suggests is we're more conscientious about including people with differences rather than cutting them from the herd. It affirms that instead of the disadvantaged among us, especially, having to just take whatever treatment they get -- the kids who think they can't stand up to their lacerating college coach, or the closeted athlete with fears about his or her job and more -- there's a genuine migration going on. The power brokers who think they can behave with impunity or recklessness are finding that no longer goes unremarked.

Jerks and jerkish behavior keep getting rejected for a widening list of reasons.

All of which leads my big fat mouth to want to issue another disclaimer:

What's not to like about a sports world trending toward all that?

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