Beebe isn't only race in Lett media case

January 26, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- He started off sitting. Sitting and sweating. He stood up. Fanned his face. Walked away. But the questions continued, and the sweating continued, and finally he could take no more.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said, walking off the field at the Georgia Dome. "Done. Done."

Super Bowl Media Day usually amounts to a spoof on pack journalism, but it wasn't funny yesterday, seeing Leon Lett turn into Leon Sweat, seeing him hounded about two bonehead plays.

It wasn't funny, because Lett is an emerging star in the NFL, and because the uproar surrounding him is at least partly the result of his being black.

"If he would have been white, it would have been different, sure," said Don Beebe, the man who chased down Lett in last year's Super Bowl.

Beebe isn't black. He isn't crying racism. He's just stating the obvious.

If Lett were white, no one would have accused him of showboating on his Super Bowl record 64-yard fumble return, when he held the ball out long enough for Beebe to slap it away.

If Lett were white, no one would have snickered at his ignorance after he failed to heed an obscure rule and helped cost the Dallas Cowboys a game on Thanksgiving Day.

Whites don't like to hear this kind of thing, but a double standard still exists, 30 years after the civil-rights movement, in the so-called equal-opportunity world of sports.

Beebe, a white Buffalo receiver, spoke to that reality yesterday, saying that Lett was "judged unfairly," saying that he was merely excited, not trying to show off.

The play had no significance -- it occurred in the fourth quarter of a game Dallas won, 52-17. But many saw it as an affirmation of old stereotypes, the hustling white player besting the flamboyant black.

Famous white goats such as Ralph Branca, Bill Buckner and Scott Norwood might wince at that sociology, but Lett didn't lose a dramatic playoff game, a World Series or a Super Bowl.

He just messed up.

"A lot of people are going to take a shot at somebody no matter what," said Lett, a 6-foot-6, 292-pound defensive lineman. "Whether they're racist, it doesn't matter. I just try to look past it and do my job."

Lett, however, conceded: "I'll probably get that [hate] mail forever." His Thanksgiving blunder against Miami only made things worse, but it also proved meaningless. The Cowboys still gained home-field advantage in the playoffs.

At first, Lett thought he might be cut, but coach Jimmy Johnson exonerated him, and his teammates forgave him. Many weren't even aware that a blocked field goal becomes live when a member of the defensive team touches it.

Hardly anyone was, but the jokes kept coming.

"You all wonder why this man is not talking to you," defensive end Charles Haley told reporters. "When you go out and rip a guy like that, what do you expect?"

Lett, 25, stopped giving interviews after the Miami game, but the NFL says it fines players $10,000 for failing to appear at Media Day, so yesterday he had no choice.

He bolted after 10 minutes, then returned near the end of the one-hour session, apparently at the urging of the Cowboys' public relations staff.

Lett comes from Fair Hope, Ala. He attended Emporia State, an NAIA school in Kansas. Nothing prepared him for the media spotlight, especially the scorching glare of the Super Bowl.

NBA rookie Chris Webber was savvy enough to name one of his charity endeavors "Time Out" after his famous -- and costly -- mistake in last year's NCAA final. Lett just wants to be left alone.

"They call him 'The Big Cat,' " defensive tackle Russell Maryland said. "He's kind of like a gentle giant. You might think because of his size that he's an imposing, mean person. All in all, Leon is really shy."

Of course, that doesn't prevent the Cowboys from teasing their teammate -- after last year's Super Bowl, they tied a string to the seams of a football, so Lett could use it as a handle.

Maryland said Lett breaks into a sweat if he's late for a team meeting. Guard Nate Newton offered an even more novel explanation for his stage fright, attributing it to his Southern upbringing.

"He's scared of white people," joked Newton, a black player. "He sees all you white media guys, and he thinks you're coming to burn down his house."

It might sound ridiculous, but Newton's remarks probably contained some truth. Just ask Lett what he'll do if he picks up another fumble in this year's Super Bowl.

"I'm going to run like hell," he said. "I'm not going to stop."

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