Charlie Ward, star point guard for the New York Knicks and recent recipient of the NBA's outstanding community service award, was chastised by NBA commissioner David Stern last week as an "intolerant and divisive" zealot.
Stern was responding to inflammatory remarks Ward made about Jews in a recent New York Times Magazine article. In the article, Ward classified Jews as "stubborn," and said that they had Christ's "blood on their hands." He also cryptically remarked that, "There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day."
Since our society tends not to confuse its athletes for its historians, let us not dwell on the fact that it was Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who ordained the crucifixion, or, for that matter, that the events occurred 2,000 years ago. Likewise, since our society tends not to mistake its athletes for its philosophers, let us not dwell on the fact that Christ died for all of our sins, as opposed to the indiscretions of any one group. Get it? To blame Jews in this regard is to miss the entire point. Or, as American Jewish Congress Executive Director Phil Baum put it: "Ward ... should stick to basketball, and leave the theology to those who know at least something about it."
Since our society does, however, tend to mistake its athletes for its role models, let us dwell for a moment on the cultural implications of Ward's remarks. In the simplest sense, Ward's comments represent primitive tribalism. As part of the dominant tribe - Christians - Ward places a higher value on those who worship as he does. For those who do not, Mr. Ward is comfortable distilling them into a few broad stereotypes (i.e., "stubborn") and, in effect, marginalizing them as inferior "others."
This is natural: The dominant tribe tends not to like the other tribes very much for the simple reason that they represent competing social customs. Traditionally, the reaction of the dominant tribe has been one of defensiveness. In such a manner, minorities have been regarded as mentally inferior, females as unable to rein in their emotions, etc. Over time, these cultural stereotypes are reinforced through social and cultural hierarchies, causing people with pointy, white hoods to stomp down our streets and people like Charlie Ward to casually deride Jews. That Mr. Ward's tribal instincts slither out from behind a glowing smile makes them no less dangerous or offensive.
Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, put it succinctly: "We were shocked to read the comments of N.Y. Knicks players ... blaming the death of Jesus on Jews and accusing Jews of persecuting Christians. We had thought these destructive historic myths, which have been a source of anti-Semitism for centuries, were a thing of the past."
In his publicly issued apology, Mr. Ward did vow to learn more about Judaism. He also insisted that he meant no offense by his remarks. Having met with Ward in the past, I know that his life is suffused with the ideas of Christian charity and acts of love. Therefore, I do not doubt that he intended his apology as a sincere expression of regret. At the same time, though, the latter statement is telling insofar as it indicates that his religious bigotry is so deeply ingrained that he is not even aware that it exists.
This point was also noted by Foxman: "In his attempt to clarify his comments, it is clear that Mr. Ward just doesn't get it. Sadly, he doesn't understand the impact of his comments and that they constitute anti-Semitism and religious bigotry."
Even more frightening is the fact that, as a public figure, Mr. Ward's remarks are worse than ignorant or inexcusable, they are influential.