A few days ago I was speaking to a former NFL player about his old teammates. “Everything got better when the team hired a new coach,” he said. “Finally, we had someone willing to get rid of the niggers.” Later, the man added about an African-American lineman, “He was an amazing player, until he went all black on us.”
I’ve never blogged about this, but it’s a good topic. Of all the difficulties I’ve faced as a journalist, the toughest is listeningâ€”but not reactingâ€”as people spew ideas I find utterly deplorable. The obvious example dates back 10 years, when I sat in John Rocker’s car as he damned gays to hell, ripped a black teammate as “a fat monkey” and slammed everyone from gays to Asians to Hispanics. But that was hardly an isolated occurrence. Through the years, I’ve sat stoically as people have unleashed some of the most venomous racial/sexist diatribes one can ever hear. How many times have I heard an athlete call a woman “bitch”? How many times have I heard African-Americans tagged “niggers”? How many times have gays been labeled “fags” and “queers”? Countless.
So how do I react? Honestly, I say nothing.
As much as I hate it, the job of a journalist is to listen, absorb and report. The former NFL player was actually doing me a service, by offering an unfiltered perspective of how he sees things. Sure, odds are he probably thought he was confiding in a fellow white man who shared his believes. But I didn’t lead him on, or pretend to agree with his words. I merely jotted down what he was saying and kept asking more questions. It’s my job.
I don’t like to brag (and hopefully this doesn’t come off as excessive bragging), but one of the things I think I’ve done well throughout my career is listen. Just the other day someone asked, “How do you get people to say so much?” The answer is pretty simple:
A. I listen.
B. I almost never interrupt.
C. I rarely (as in, almost never) interject my own opinions.
D. I try and understand where the person is coming from.
The NFLer is a southerner born in the 1940s. He grew up attending an all-white high school; probably played on a college team with four or five African-Americans. Racial division is all he knew and, therefore, stereotypes come easy. That doesn’t make his opinion right or righteous, but it adds a vital perspective.