By Michael Miner
In Overtime They All Pray to the Same God
Skip Bayless steered into a tempest last week. On Wednesday the Tribune ran his column on the New York Knicks and Jews, and for a day he didn’t do much but answer mail. “I stayed up literally all night,” he told me later. “I got on a roll and I said, ‘I can’t stop.’ My sports editor, trying to help, said, ‘Maybe you should start coming up with a standard reply,’ and I said that if you could read the E-mails, they are so well done and so passionate, pro or con, and ask such different questions and are so differently nuanced, that if I had written one of them I personally would have been offended if the writer had responded to me with boilerplate.”
The storm blew up the previous Sunday, when a piece on the Knicks by Eric Konigsberg ran in the New York Times Magazine. Konigsberg, who’d traveled with the team in order to describe it from the inside out, joined a Bible-study group organized by Knicks guard Charlie Ward. He described a session in a hotel suite in Milwaukee. “I thought I was doing fine; the players seemed interested in Judaism,” he wrote. “I fancied that the seeds of an interfaith fellowship were being planted.”
A lovely notion. But the Knicks players had something else in mind. Ward said, “Jews are stubborn, E. But tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn’t want to accept?”
“What?” Konigsberg replied.
“They had his blood on their hands.”
On his Palm Pilot, guard Allan Houston referenced Matthew 26, verse 67, and recited: “Then they spit in Jesus’s face and hit him with their fists.” And Ward asked, “It say anything about who wanted Jesus dead? There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day. There’s been books written about this–people who are raised Jewish and find Christ, and then their parents stop talking to them.”
Forward Kurt Thomas spoke up: “You know, there’s Jews for Jesus, man.”
That Sunday afternoon, Ward was booed when he took the court in Madison Square Garden. The Anti-Defamation League accused him and Houston of “anti-Semitism and religious bigotry.” NBA commissioner David Stern said Ward’s remarks “demonstrate zealotry of all types is intolerant and divisive.”
Over the next couple of days, Times sports columnist Ira Berkow called the Knicks’ language “resounding and chilling…words without charity.” The Tribune’s Melissa Isaacson pondered the testimonials to Ward from his teammates and wondered, “If a good citizen and all-around great guy like Ward could be filled with such hate, how many others are lurking, disguised as your friendly neighbor, a co-worker or any member of the Bulls?”
Ward issued a statement apologizing.
In the wake of these developments, Bayless decided he could bring something important and still unexpressed to the story–the sensibility of a journalist who, like Ward, has read the Bible and takes it seriously and accepts it as literally true.
Bayless asked his readers to put the Knicks’ language in context. “This wasn’t an interview conducted at Ward’s locker,” he argued. “This wasn’t one-on-one in the coffee shop or Ward’s room. This was a nonbeliever attending more than one of the Bible studies led by Ward. This was Konigsberg eagerly participating in an intimate spiritual discussion on Ward’s fire-and-brimstone turf. These were Christian soldiers so comfortable with Konigsberg they began calling him ‘E’ instead of Eric.”
To lift the Knicks’ quotes out of this context–which is what the media promptly did–was to “run the risk of encouraging neo-Nazis and skinheads to believe Charlie Ward is sending them a message to get even for Jesus. And that horrifies me more than you know,” Bayless told me. Yet their biblical foundation could not be denied or dismissed. “If you believe the New Testament, as Ward does,” he said, “the statements he made to Konigsberg all ring of truth–but overly harsh and generalized truth.”
I asked Bayless about the reaction of his readers to his column. The extreme Christian response, he said, was to recall the role prophesied for the Jews in the New Testament. “Once you get to Revelation, in the very end during the time of the Antichrist that is to come, the Jews become the final evangelists. The 12 tribes of Israel reconvene and become evangelists who carry God’s message to the unsaved to give them one last chance at salvation.
“My point is that Jews are only getting the first half of the story. Many Christians admire Jews because they’ve got a role to play in the final movement of the Bible.”
The other extreme?
“A number of Jews went so far–I heard a lot of Hitler references, that this was the same sort of mind-set that provided motivation for the Holocaust. Lumping together Charlie Ward with Hitler and the Holocaust is beyond me. I believe Charles Ward does not hate Jews. He loves Jews and wants to save their souls.”
Konigsberg wrote that the players in the Bible group “have turned to religion in an effort to comprehend their good fortune.” To Bayless, this was a “cynical” explanation of their faith. I don’t see that, but I do fault Konigsberg for telling us less about the revealing Bible-study session than his readers deserve to know. He wasn’t a fly on the wall there. He participated; what the Knicks said about Jews they said to him for his reaction. Yet aside from a single “What?” there’s no hint of Konigsberg’s contribution to the moment. The players’ language is so provocative that we need to know if it was in any way invited, or if–when Konigsberg presumably defended his faith–the players respected what he said.
What would you have written, I asked Bayless, if you’d heard the same things and it was your story?
“I would like to think I’d have written it in the correct context,” he replied, “with some sympathy for how passionately they believe what they believe. It’s a tenet of Christianity that you witness for God. If Charlie Ward had gone to three Bible-study classes with Konigsberg and not spoken out he would have failed in God’s eyes.
“Charlie was just doing what he does on his turf. He didn’t go down and knock on Eric’s door and say, ‘Brother, I have to talk with you.’ The Jewish people don’t like that, and I don’t blame them. Because he willingly engaged in Bible study, to me it was predictable what happened, and I thought it should have been written that it was predictable.”
Bayless said his editor added one line to the column. Bayless originally wrote, “According to the New Testament, Jesus, a Jew, was killed by his own people. Christians were persecuted by Jews. After Jesus was crucified, several disciples died violently at the hands of Jews.” The passage was edited to read, “According to the New Testament, which some regard as nothing more than literature…”
Bayless isn’t someone who regards it that way. What he believes, and Charlie Ward might not have thought of, is that God put Christ on earth to be crucified. “I think it was prophesied,” Bayless said. “Jesus had to die for our sins, and to be honest with you, I’m glad that he died. If it was prophesied that Jews would turn on him, that’s great, and I never think twice on it today. That’s like holding the present-day Sioux responsible for the massacre of Custer. I believe in it as a historical fact, but it was part of a grand plan. And I believe in the New Testament enough to believe that in Revelation–what we talked about earlier–that will all come true.”
T errible things can happen whenever the news is read out of context. Just last weekend the daughter of an Andersonville businesswoman called me in anguish to say that her mother’s good name was being trashed and her livelihood threatened. What prompted this calamity? It seems readers spotted an item in the Chicago Free Press and according to the editor, everyone read it the wrong way.
The Free Press’s “stINC.” column quoted Joe Sprague, executive director of the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, as saying that a couple of chamber representatives dropped by the Gethsemane Garden Center in Andersonville to invite it to join the chamber and there was a nasty confrontation.
According to the column, the owners “denounced the gay community as immoral and out of sync with the teachings of God. They agreed they had a large gay clientele, and said that, yes, (they) would take our money and even hire ‘you people,’ but that they would not join our organization.”
Editor Louis Weisberg says this item “got more response than any news story we’ve run in two years.” Though he allows that many of the readers responded to call the Free Press–which had failed to contact the store or the women from the chamber who visited it–irresponsible, the one letter it chose to publish a week later sang a different song. “How dare you,” asserted this open letter to the Gethsemane Garden Center. “I am here to tell you that until you issue a public apology, and join the [chamber], you will never receive a dime more of my hard-earned paycheck. Furthermore, I intend to let every community member, co-worker and friend of mine know about your intolerant and homophobic policies.”
But Lauryn Kushner, the chamber’s director of tourism and one of the representatives who called on the garden center, says the Free Press got it wrong. She says the woman who greeted her–Kathleen Tennison-Chefas, wife of Gethsemane’s owner, Regas Chefas–didn’t call gays immoral. And Ana Gehant, daughter of Tennison-Chefas, called me to say she didn’t recognize her mother from the Free Press article. “She doesn’t hold these beliefs. She doesn’t. ‘It’s against God’! I know for a fact she doesn’t believe that.”
When I called the Free Press, Weisberg explained away the confusion by saying that people misunderstood what they were reading. “First of all, it wasn’t a news story,” he said. “We printed it as gossip. I thought people would probably follow up by calling the chamber and asking the chamber if it was true or not.”
Weisberg and managing editor Lisa Neff write “stINC.” “I didn’t know people read those things that way,” Weisberg went on, “those things” being gossip columns and “that way” being by believing them. “We don’t make stuff up, but we report what’s sort of the buzz.”
Weisberg now wishes he’d called the garden center for a comment before running the buzz that trashed it. But if Gethsemane has actually lost business, he can see a bright side to that. “When gays and lesbians show their market clout this way, it’s really a positive thing. It’s unfortunate for that particular business maybe, but when they offend representatives of the community and the community responds by asking for an explanation–I think it lets these businesses know we pay attention.”
For some reason the Tribune treated the confessions of Bob Kerrey last week as a second-rate story. The Sun-Times understood what it had. Beneath the headline “‘So Ashamed, I Wanted to Die'” the Sun-Times played Kerrey across its front page and two inside pages, and the next day followed up by interviewing Vietnam veterans. “I’m a very strong Republican,” said one. “And I would vote for Bob Kerrey.”
Some stories are important. This one was profound, taking us to the unfamiliar bedrock of sin, memory, and remorse. Some commentators saw nothing more than an occasion to refight old battles. “Using Kerrey to self-flagellate” was how the New York Times billed one of its op-ed pieces last Monday. “Men like Kerrey were tools of a deadly policy,” it billed another. And in the letters section someone complained that “everyone, including Mr. Kerrey, seems to think that this story is about him. It’s almost as if those who were killed have become mere stage props in some morality play.”
But in a fine, thoughtful column that gave the Tribune something to be proud of, John Kass observed that the U.S. today “has no clue, no point of reference, from which to examine Lt. Kerrey.” He wrote that Kerrey “has been publicly disgraced,” and it’s possible that Kerrey himself feels that way. But the revelations about the 1969 SEAL raid on the village of Thanh Phong may have made him seem less monstrous than sympathetic. He is the rare public figure who has looked into his own soul. He is a serious man.
The Tribune decided to let the suspense build. It led off its account by announcing that Tavarez was in hot water for “a slur describing gays.” But a reader eager to learn what the slur was had to wade through several tedious paragraphs of back story and jump from page one of the sports section to page six.
When the Tribune could delay no longer, it cut loose: “Asked about the reaction, Tavarez said, ‘What do I care about the fans here?’ and used a common curse word and the slur about gays to describe them. ‘That’s what they are.'”
Strictly speaking, you don’t slur gays by calling them faggots. You just offend them. A fastidious paper like the Tribune needs to watch what it doesn’t say.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.