Give Braves' Rocker a chance to redeem himself

January 16, 2000|By Andrew Young

THE 100 Percent Wrong Club, Atlanta's oldest black sports club, should honor John Rocker for bringing his reactionary attitudes into the open where they can be addressed in the Atlanta style -- with humor, truth and reconciliation. After all, similar insecurities and fears are just beneath the surface in many of us.

As we approach the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it's appropriate that we allow his life and teaching to affect our present-day conflicts. Following lessons he learned from Mohandas Gandhi, King taught his closest associates, including me, always to try to give an adversary a "face-saving" way to become a partner in ending segregation and racism.

Mr. Rocker needs Atlanta to hand that kind of face-saving way out to him. We could start by trying to understand what the young man was up against when he confronted New York sports fans and that city's ferocious press.

During my tenure as ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s, the New York press even provoked me into a series of headlines that served only to make my work more difficult.

And there was not the pressure of 60,000 sports fans shouting at me. I know what it's like to be taunted, so it's not hard for me to walk a mile in Mr. Rocker's shoes. No one can defend the statements Mr. Rocker made to Sports Illustrated, but we ought to understand them in the context of a high-strung athlete who geared up for the victory and ended in the agony of defeat.

After the Braves lost the World Series, Mr. Rocker experienced a rage and frustration that were real. It shouldn't take a sports psychologist to decide that, yes, he was irrational and explosive, and when that happens, all of your deep-seated prejudices and insecurities come to the surface.

And let's not kid ourselves, we all have them. That's the second thing we could do to give Mr. Rocker a hand in extricating himself from this controversy -- recognizing our own prejudices.

Mr. Rocker might learn something about dignity and restraint in the face of vicious taunting by reading about the experiences of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, who endured the indignities of segregation and ugly race-baiting during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The crowds and the atmosphere were a thousand times worse for them than anything Mr. Rocker could ever imagine.

Yet, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Aaron never lost their cool. They were prepared by generations of training from their elders in tolerance and restraint. There were religious and political reasons for their self-discipline. They carried the hopes and prayers of the race and nation. Success had to be earned on and off the field, and they were never allowed to forget that.

Mr. Rocker is still young enough to change, young enough to be redeemed, young enough to learn those lessons with help from his teammates and the rest of the Atlanta community.

When he absorbs those lessons, he can throw 100-mph strikes with a smile, and we'll all win.

Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta, wrote this for the Atlanta Constitution.

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