Two weeks ago this column addressed the bothersome case of Dave Stewart, a sports figure who may or may not have been subjected to racial discrimination. Whether or not he was remains a matter for debate, but his claim has enough merit that the debate is one worth having. Wrapped up in that debate is a larger question: to what degree should race be weighted as a factor in individual behavior? To put it another way, if race is a factor, is it necessarily the most important one? There are most certainly those who would answer with an unqualified yes, and that sort of zealotry can lead us down some slippery slopes.
Now, along comes Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel.
Before December 11th the Denver Nuggets were not players in the national sports arena, and Dan Issel was not, by any stretch, a household name. The situation changed dramatically that Tuesday night when Issel, fresh off a 99-96 loss to the Charlotte Hornets (the fifth game of a losing streak) uttered the following words to a heckling fan: "Go drink another beer, you fucking Mexican piece of shit."
The remark, naturally, made national headlines and sent sports pundits scurrying to put in their two cents. Inevitably, a chorus rose up to demand his head. The next day, Issel appeared at a news conference to offer his apology. It was tearful and, very apparently, sincere. At that same event Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe handed down word of Issels punishment: a four game suspension, no pay (his salary will instead go into the Nuggets Community Relations fund).
Following the announcement the issue immediately became whether or not the suspension/fine was a severe enough punishment. For what its worth (which ought to be a lot) the fan, Bobby Bowman, appeared on ESPNs Sportscenter that night and accepted Issels apology. That, of course, was not enough for many advocates who would have settled for nothing less than the public humiliation and stoning of Dan Issel in downtown Denver. The matter is obviously not completely closed, and only time will determine what the final cost will be to Issel and the Nuggets in general.
Which makes it a perfect time to note the following: the punishment was absolutely appropriate, and it is right that Issel is still employed as coach of the Denver Nuggets.
There can be no doubt that what Issel did was stupid, and when a person does something stupid there are usually consequences. Issels consequence is not simply the suspension and the lost pay, it is that he now has a scarlet letter which, though it will dim with time, will always be a footnote to his record. He deserves that much, but no more.
What Dan Issel said to Bobby Bowman would have been no more or less inappropriate if the exchange had no racial overtones whatsoever. Dan Issel is a member of the basketball hall of fame with 25 years of solid service to the Denver Nuggets organization. In that time his record has been clean, and nothing of what happened December 11th has ever happened before. He has no history and no pattern of racially motivated behavior. Indeed, it is absurd to suggest that any man could be both a coach in the diverse environment of the NBA and also a racist. The racial dimension of this incident does not make it more than what it is, which is an outburst he shouldnt have had.
Had he been fired, would the world be any better off? Of course not. Many righteous folks would feel a lot better, but the end result would be that an otherwise good man had lost his job over one stupid mistake. The Nuggetsspecifically owner Stan Kroenke and GM Vandewegheshould be praised for taking a measured approach to a situation when it would have been far easier to join the chorus and send Issel packing. Their decision speaks to the fact that the best way to solve the race problem in America is to deal with it, not to create it out of whole cloth.
The latest reports on Dan Issel suggest that he is spending his four-game suspension contemplating resigning over the incident. Its not an illogical way to approach the situation given the fact that no matter what he does in the future there are some people who will never forgive what he said. But it would be a damn shame.