Ignorance and Arrogance Collide, Live and Off-Color
By SELENA ROBERTS
Published: June 10, 2004
LESS than an off-season since Janet Jackson was busted for her material breach of decency on the Super Bowl stage, Bill Parcells decided to open his flap.
Within weeks after the Dallas Mavericks were chastised for mocking Sacramento in a video skit that depicted the "Queens" in drag, Larry Bird indulged in a TV chat that dragged out an offending thought on race.
Over the past month or so, Shaquille O'Neal has blurted curse words on air, while Steve *&!# Francis has uttered a chosen expletive in exchange for an adjective.
The official den mother of live-mike morality - the Federal Communications Commission - has enough weighing on its censors while policing Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and, if it's ever tuned in, the Knick City Dancers.
Do broadcasters and beat reporters need a "dump" button for raving sports icons, too? This tape-delayed method of pre-empting offensive material before it hits the audience is intended to protect shock jocks against themselves during a William Bennett revival that was touched off by Janet - or Ms. Jackson, if you're nasty.
Didn't Parcells and Bird hear? The anything-goes entertainment culture of insensitivity is out. Self-censorship is in. For different reasons this week, Parcells and Bird failed to apply the new rules of microphone virtue.
Bird's offensive lapse was out of ignorance; Parcells's racial slur was out of arrogance. Bird was prompted by a question; Parcells was prompted by pomposity.
In a roundtable discussion with Bird, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Magic Johnson that is scheduled to be shown tonight on ESPN and was reported by USA Today yesterday, the host Jim Gray said, "Does the N.B.A. lack enough white superstars in your opinion?"
Granted, the inquiry by Gray was a leading question, but Bird chose to advance the loaded topic when he said a white superstar would be good "for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America.''
"And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited,'' Bird said. "But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean the greatest athletes in the world are African-American."
Unable to pick up his dribble, Bird, the homespun folk legend from French Lick, Ind., went on to say that he loathed being guarded by a "white" guy during his Celtics days, adding: "As far as playing, I didn't care who guarded me - red, yellow, black. I just didn't want a white guy guarding me, because it's disrespect to my game."
Maybe he was kidding, but Bird managed to denigrate the white athlete, marginalize black players and Euro-bash the influx of foreign stars to a league that, under Commissioner David Stern, is regarded as the most wonderfully diverse in the world.
Bird's backward accounting of the league's current makeup must be a product of anachronistic thinking steeped in an N.B.A. era of ugly stereotypes during the early 80's. The league has progressed; Bird should join in.
As most understand, the N.B.A. isn't desperate for a superstar of a certain color, but it craves a colorful talent who transcends race the way Michael Jordan did in the 90's - and the way Yao Ming just might do in the coming years.
Bird's rationale is out of touch; Parcells's is out of control.
As the lord of discipline on the field, as the issuer of gag orders for his football assistants, as the only voice he wants to hear, Parcells is a narcissist in the reflection of his own pithy prose.
"She's making progress," Parcells once said on the health status of the New England receiver Terry Glenn. Very clever.
On Monday, Parcells outperformed. On his very own, he turned a phrase into a slur against Japanese when he said "no disrespect to the Orientals" then likened the surprise-attack offensive schemes of the Cowboys to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
An uncomfortable murmur spread through a press gathering that included a Japanese journalist. Later in the day, an apology from Parcells was released through the Dallas Cowboys.
The audible cringe of the Dallas news media might have been a little sobering for Parcells. At times, his aura has rendered some news media folks either too helpless to react to his bully pulpit or too awestruck to parse his crude meanderings.
No doubt the usual shtick of Parcells is entertaining - as is the normally refreshing candor of Bird - but neither icon can use the entertainer's alibi for their most recent errors in judgment.
They are not talking heads or radio pundits on the air. Bird and Parcells are authority figures within their leagues. Bird is the president of the Indiana Pacers, while Parcells occupies every title but team owner in Dallas.
They have to be above racial putdowns and removed from the antennae of the F.C.C. Revved up by Janet, the vulgarity vigilantes have enough wardrobe malfunctions to monitor without sports icons exposing their mouths. Dump buttons, anyone?