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COMMENTARY : It’s Time to Take Notice

NEWSDAY

Does it really take comments extracted from the midst of an interview with Lawrence Taylor to make us focus on the fact of racism? Tragically, yes.

Of course, any of us who is at all alert to what goes on around us and has any conscience knows people are rejected from school, housing, jobs and the opportunities of life for reason of race, religion or national origin. But we don’t think about it. We don’t think very much at all about people not like us.

It takes something like comments from a famous athlete or an event like Shoal Creek to make us notice. There are big wrongs going around us that are a whole lot more important than a silly golf tournament and a silly football game, and we ignore them because they aren’t happening to our kind.

Maybe membership in a silly elite golf club is an issue.

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In the current Sports Illustrated, Taylor says he has been turned down for membership at several all-white golf clubs in northern New Jersey, where he lives. “It’s not an LT-can’t-play-golf issue,” he said.

But that’s what it is because of what the golf club represents. Just look around Giants Stadium any game day and count all the jerseys with 56 on the back. He’s so beloved. How many of those people proudly wearing his brand, who roar and beat their hands for what Taylor does in his uniform, begin to understand that among them are people who reject him from their club because he is a black man?

The chain of reality begins there -- or it ends there, depending on which side of the social scale you begin. “Black folks are getting killed out there. They are getting mistreated and nobody gives a damn,” Taylor said. “That’s what the whole issue is about. It’s not about golf.”

The truth of the message is such that the identity of the messenger can’t obscure it. The concept that it’s never too late to do the right thing is more relevant.

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Taylor refused to name those clubs. He should have. The sharp focus of Shoal Creek, rather than a nebulous accusation, forced change. Not naming the clubs lets them hide; the members know which clubs they are, and that’s how they want it.

The reality is, as Taylor said, that he can be a football star, make a whole lot of money, but at some point his identity in the minds of others is that he is black. Black accountants and doctors and lawyers reach that conclusion earlier -- when they try to get into college, into medical school or a top law firm without the revenue-glory producing gifts of a linebacker.

Taylor said he never expressed himself on the issue before because nobody asked him. That’s a cop-out. I tried on occasion; I was there when Murray Kempton tried to open the door. It was Taylor who was happy to be celebrated as a rookie and snarled the media away when the Giants lost a playoff game. It was Taylor, in the midst of drug misadventure and recovery, who insisted: Football questions only. It was Taylor who limited access and subject matter.

Taylor insists that media racism kept mentioning that he was a two-time drug offender. But nearly every story of any length on Steve Howe relates to his past drug problems -- and Howe is white. And Dwight Gooden’s past drug involvement is rarely an issue because his conduct since then has made it irrelevant, except when Gooden has brought it up to make his own point.

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Taylor would have presented a more pointed argument if he didn’t bring his own baggage. Any club could make a reasonable argument that it didn’t want a two-time drug offender who has gloried in violence and declared, “I live life wild.” In his own book, Taylor recalls deciding “early on that I would be the craziest of the crazies, the wildest one of all.” I’d be wary of having that person living next to me if he was a purple pumpkin-eater.

Where was his awareness and sensitivity for 11 years? He always had a forum if he wanted it; go ahead, tug a reporter’s sleeve and say, “Do you know what happened to me when I asked about membership?” or say, “Y’know what I think about ...?”

There never was much doubt about Taylor’s insightfulness, only whether he would make it available. Too bad he didn’t speak out sooner. It’s unfair to demand an athlete bear the weight of speaking for a whole race. Perhaps it took this long for Taylor to put his thoughts together. Willie Mays never did speak out; Jackie Robinson always did.

Taylor despairs for New York. He may be right. He thinks race relations are worse in the North than in the South. I never lived in the South, except for two years in the Army. Perhaps the distinction is that the New York area is so heterogeneous. It’s not likely that Italians will be closed out of the country club in Mississippi if there aren’t Italians there to be excluded.

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We have racism from all directions here -- from police to college professors. Bigotry is not limited to one side or another. Our sensibilities are formed from our own experience and our own exposure. One person cannot think clearly for another until he has walked a lifetime in his skin.

Taylor does a service to make people who might never have thought about that think about that. Even for a moment. We should be reminded ourselves.


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