Something is rotten, Smith's outburst says

MIKE LITTWIN

January 23, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

MINNEAPOLIS -- Bruce Smith's ugly little secret is out.

Now, what a lot of people want to know is: Why?

Smith says it's simple. He chose to reveal his anger over receiving racially charged hate mail because it was the right thing to do.

"This is a serious problem we have all over the world," he says. "The only way we can solve it is to attack it."

Others aren't so sure. What I keep hearing is that Smith is playing the race card, and that he's making it an issue here at the Super Bowl, where even the smallest issues are writ large, because either he wants to be traded or he wants to renegotiate his contract or he just wants the attention.

"I'm speaking out about it," he says. "If people don't like it, I don't give a damn."

He says this softly, which is the way the 6-foot-4, 275-pounder always speaks. You don't hear anger. You hear hurt. I'm guessing he is deeply hurt, and maybe that's why Smith, who is hurt easily, has chosen to go public. Maybe that's why he has even hinted he'd be better off playing somewhere other than Buffalo, although he concedes most people in Buffalo are wonderful and that this can happen anywhere.

Certainly, it happens to every black athlete. It is, sadly, part of the game.

It even happens to writers, particularly when the subject is race. We all get these letters. We get the angrily scrawled, often ethnic-baiting, anonymously written letters, some punctuated with veiled threats, some not veiled at all. I've even gotten letters that have mentioned crematoria.

The first letters shock. The next ones hurt. Eventually, you come to laugh at them and the poor, ignorant souls who send them.

Smith can't laugh.

For most of this season, he was injured, coming off a year when he was the best defensive player in the game. A lot of people wondered why Smith couldn't play. So, he got letters. There weren't that many, only about 10 of the noxious variety. Some of them were pretty nasty, however. "Take the worst thing you could think to say about a black, African-American man, and magnify it by 10," he says. One of them -- the one that got to him -- came to his home address and scared his wife to death.

That's when he spoke out during the season.

Did he overreact?

Cornelius Bennett, an All-Pro linebacker for the Bills, says he has gotten letters from the time he was in college at Alabama. He says that, since 1989, after a particularly loathsome letter, he doesn't open his mail unless there is a football card inside for him to sign. He has never spoken up, but he says that Smith is particularly vulnerable.

"Bruce is a very emotional person," Bennett says. "We always kid him because he cries when he watches the movie 'Born Free.' But this hurt him. It had to hurt him. If it didn't bother him, he wouldn't be a man."

Smith is emotional, and he has a tendency to consider himself a victim. As a kid growing up in Norfolk, Va., he was vastly overweight, and he says that his classmates used to beat him up regularly. Inside, you never get over being that fat kid. And this season, he was a victim again. The timing in this affair is critical.

After missing the first four games with an injured knee, he came back for one with the Bears, a decision he characterizes as the biggest mistake of his life. He was not ready and didn't play again until December. While he was out for the second time, a lot of questions were asked. One reporter asked Buffalo coach Marv Levy if Smith's absence might be drug related. Levy blew up. The issue arose because Smith was suspended for four games during the 1988 season for drug use.

"I was really down, not able to play," Smith says. "I was used to totally dominating a game."

And if he hadn't been down when he got the letter?

"I would have just blown it off," he says.

That's what people do in these situations: They blow the mail off. Smith did not. And, since he was asked, he has made it an issue here. Smith is not so naive that he doesn't understand the ramifications of his actions, particularly the discussion of whether he should leave Buffalo. He never said he would, but when asked directly, he didn't say he wouldn't, either. Only days before the biggest game of the year, when the operative football code word is focus, he left the issue hanging.

Maybe that's wrong. Certainly, no one can suggest Buffalo's racial climate is worse than any other city's, not when people are painting little black kids with white shoe polish in New York.

But the problems are there. And so is the mail. Can Smith be wrong for saying so?

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