It's only a real honor to cover a privileged few

December 30, 2004|By David Steele

A"PRIVILEGE." That's what Jets quarterback Chad Pennington said the media enjoy when covering pro athletes. But that's old news, overtaken by events since then. The sports world, the one Pennington is grasping to understand beyond his own place in it, lost Johnny Oates and Reggie White in the past week.

If Pennington really understood how much of a privilege it was to be around those two men during their too-short stays on Earth, he'd never use the word in that context again, no matter what point he was trying to make or gaffe he was trying to play off.

Not to speak for everybody covering sports in America these days, but it's safe to say Pennington's crack a week and a half ago - that it's a privilege, not a right, to be around the best athletes in the world - gave a number of us in this business pause to reflect. According to Webster's, he's right. But "privilege" implies something beyond having earned access to what the general public can't get; it implies honor, exceptional character and worthiness.

In short, it implies a lot more than the chance to hear a guy who throws a football for a living spout cliches and avoid tough questions about his play. In that context, who are we really "privileged" to be writing and talking about?

Granted, there are a lot worse ways to make a living than the way Pennington and his adversaries do. Every once in a while, we get caught up in the effect a young, headstrong, thin-skinned quarterback has on the quality of our lives, until we start reading about a tsunami or a suicide bombing.

Then, we start making rounds of calls to the police in Aruba or the prosecutors in Auburn Hills, Mich., or the district attorney in Eagle, Colo., and we remember how dangerous it is to elevate anyone because of how he throws, pitches or shoots a ball.

An athlete has to go above and beyond that as a human being to make it a privilege to be in his presence. And so far, no one who had spent a significant amount of time with either Johnny Oates or Reggie White has said anything other than how enriching it was to be around them, to be in contact with even a small part of their lives on and off the field. They felt lucky, they've said, to have had a chance to tell the world about those two while they were alive to hear about it, and their sense of loss now goes much further than that of, respectively, a good manager and a future Hall of Fame defensive end.

Those types of people are rare in big-time sports (and, certainly, any other walk of life, especially public ones). Those who have been around Barry Bonds, for instance, are glad to be able to say they saw his greatness up close, but not often at any time other than his at-bats has anyone felt particularly privileged to be in his company.

An extreme and unfair example because of his prickly personality? All right, then think of what you truly admire about two of the greatest athletes in our lifetime, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Now name one thing, anything, about their lives away from their sports that's admirable. You remember what they did, and though they're decent men, they're not elevated to that rare level of those who can touch lives after they take off the pads or shoes, put down the bat or club.

It's not easy to get that far. Even White teeters on the edge because six years ago, in his infamous speech before the Wisconsin legislature, he sullied a near-pristine image built by the commitment he made to society as a whole and to his ministry. To his credit, he apologized quickly; moreover, he reportedly took steps late in his life to examine himself and the beliefs that largely formed the basis of those ignorant thoughts. It would have been illuminating to see where White would have been at the end of that journey.

It takes courage to ask for, and to work to earn, forgiveness, rather than blurt out the usual non-apology apologies disgraced celebrities have perfected. It helps a person, world-renowned athlete or not, grow in stature. Michael Phelps is learning that. Maybe he'll one day be in that exclusive club.

Phelps handled his own stupid mistake with maturity. So did White. Oates did something even harder: face his own demise with grace and generosity. Handling stressful situations well while under a relentless microscope goes a long way toward making others feel "privileged" to be around you. Those situations tend to tell the world who you really are, what you are about, what you stand for and why. (For what it's worth, Pennington kick-started the entire debate by sulking over criticism of his performance in big games.)

The bar is set high, and relative to all the athletes in history, very few have cleared it. Johnny Oates and Reggie White made it. Yes, Chad Pennington, it was a privilege to cover them.

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